D'oh! Maggie, a Cult Siren? Am I losing the last fragments of my already fragile mind? Not really, considering her official filmography. Our guest participated in many action films, asian mythological fantasies and more sci-fi/horror pictures that we could believe at first. Consequently, there's no reason to twist my mind to include Maggie among our Sirens: it's the logical thing to do.
But seriously, Maggie Cheung has become my favorite comedienne of the last ten years or so (even more, she's still, in my view, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, but that's my personal problem, isn't it? I once even claimed so on television!). With the new popularity of Asian cinema some years ago, I became aware of Ms. Cheung in the amazing super hero action movie Heroic Trio, as well as in the beautiful fantasy Green Snake. It was a treat to witness the actress gain international recognition in Irma Vep in 1996; these three movies are strongly suggested to any future fan. Recent high-profile and critically acclaimed projects like In the Mood for Love, Hero and Clean are other worthwhile suggestions.
It's on September 20, 1964, that Cheung Man-yuk was born in Hong Kong. At the age of 8, her family moved to England, where she began her school education. She frequently talked about feeling odd, as she was the only Asian student on the premises. But after finishing secondary school, she went back to Hong Kong, only to find that she couldn't understand a word of the language spoken, continuing her strange feeling of alienation. In a very short while, she began shooting TV ads and did some modeling. Maggie's big break came with her participation in the Miss Hong Kong Pageant in 1983. Her success in the contest would make her a potential candidate for the Miss World Pageant of the same year. Of course, after all this, there was just one logical step to take: learn to be a comedienne.
Like any young actress debuting in the Hong Kong film industry at the time, Maggie shot many insipid comedies at first, with awkwardly translated English titles: The Frog Prince, It's a Drink It's a Bomb, Happy Ghost 3, Happy Fat New Year, Love Hungry Suicide Squad, Double Causes Trouble, etc.
Luckily, more high-profile projects came her way, mainly after the big success of Jackie Chan's Police Story in 1985. Maggie would revisit this character in the film's two sequels (Police Story II and Supercop), adroitly playing Jackie's bewildered girlfriend Mai, always mystified by the troubles her cop lover gets into. Police Story shows us a young Maggie Cheung, with an often perplexed moon face, tumbling down a long flight of stairs at the end. Now firmly established in the whirlwind of the HK film community, Maggie would work seemingly without pause, jumping from movie to movie at reckless speed. Soon, some pearls would come out to the surface: Full Moon in New York, Song of the Exile, As Tears Go By, all roles requiring skillful dramatic talent, a talent that was finally emerging, waiting to be discovered.
Too often, Maggie has been called a star of HK action movies, a title that makes her smile, as she freely admits that the majority of the stunts are all done by professionals, putting their own lives at risk. Such films that we can denote are: Iceman Cometh, Dragon from Russia, Dragon Inn, Executioners, Moon Warriors, Holy Weapon, Flying Daggers... Go Maggie! As the last few years saw North America embrace this kind of entertainment, it's with satisfaction that we can witness many of these titles available for home viewing. I still suggest to skip releases bought by Disney and other big studios, as more often than not, scenes are cut, the soundtrack changes to include hip-hop music (?), as it goes against the original film maker's vision. Cult Sirens says: go with the original versions!
These last years, Maggie specialized in dramatic roles (no more ghost comedies and fart jokes). The following are very worth your time: The Actress (where she won many prestigious acting awards), Comrades: Almost a Love Story, The Soong Sisters, Chinese Box (with Jeremy Irons, who I find is becoming more and more the spitting image of Boris Karloff), Ashes of Time. Sometime in 1999, Steven Spielberg announced his plans to shoot Memoirs of a Geisha, based on the best-selling novel, with intentions to include Maggie in his cast. If I remember correctly, the project was abandoned when Spielberg was influenced in thinking that a director of Asian origins would be a more perfect choice. Sadly, this would have been Maggie's biggest break for an international career. The movie was eventually made, this time with Michelle Yeoh (and a caucasian director!).
As far as international fame goes, Maggie could still enjoy the attention that 1996's Irma Vep brought her. This film remains an intriguing and fascinating trip into the movie business, with Maggie playing herself, invited to work on a remake of an old silent French serial, Les Vampires originally directed by Louis Feuillade in 1915. Her disorientation in the story is probably the same she felt at first in the real life shooting of Irma Vep, with this double side effect being astonishingly relevant to the story. Who would've thought that one day, we would see Maggie Cheung and Jean-Pierre Léaud in the same cast?
All in all, we must conclude that Maggie became soon comfortable in France, as she dated and eventually married her Irma Vep director, Olivier Assayas, in December 1998. Can Maggie now order croissants in any French part of the world? Of course she can. When comparing Asian movie stars that made the jump to North America (particularly Hollywood, of course), we can deduce that the men (like Chow Yun-fat, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jet Li) have more trouble speaking in English than the women (Maggie, Michelle Yeoh). Just listening to Sammo in his short-lived TV series Martial Law was a great source of respectful hilarity. In remembering her schooling, it's no wonder that Maggie is perfectly multilingual. She even worked in another French movie, Augustin, roi du kung fu (not an action film, though, despite the title).
Another big critical success worldwide (and enjoying solid box-office in art houses) was In the Mood for Love, for which Maggie won as Best Actress at the Hong Kong Films Awards and the Golden Horse Film Festival. In my biased view, she should've been nominated for an Academy Award, as this remains one of the most powerful female interpretation I've seen in many years. Her hectic working schedule, as well as Olivier's, proved to be too much for the couple and they separated in May 2002. A recent big project was Hero, an astonishingly shot period movie, co-starring Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi. Hero was nominated as Best Foreign Picture at the 2002 Academy Award... and opened in North American theaters in the summer of 2004! What was Miramax waiting for? Still, you could find freshly pressed DVDs at any good specialized rental store... but you must see this on a big screen, take my word for it. Oh, there were rumors that there was tension between Maggie and up and coming star Zhang Ziyi (who made her mark on another international hit, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon... and enjoying the lead for the late in coming Memoirs of a Geisha). Maggie's next projects were a two-second cameo for 2046 for one of her favorite directors, Wong Kar-wai. And she achieved worldwide critical success in Clean, which got her the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival. For the life of me, I can't remember seeing a movie actor/actress giving so powerful a performance while managing dialogue in three different languages. Seems that she announced a break for the upcoming months, but still found time to show up for the 2004 Césars ceremony, which turned out to be an unbearably bad show (as usual?).
And why is Maggie my favorite actress? Well, aren't these photographs evidence enough? Can we take our eyes off her when she's on any screen? Aren't her great sensitivity and acting skills miles ahead of any high-profile international actresses? Oddly, she's probably the only one in this entire website that could one day win a future Academy Award (for what it's worth, of course). So, long live Maggie Cheung... and where is my second sequel to Heroic Trio (yeah, sure)?