RSS Feed
YumCha! » Feature Articles

Maggie Cheung - Taking Chinese Modernity to the West

Written by Qiu Su-Ling Tell a Friend

Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk has had a remarkably varied career. Born on 20th September 1964, Cheung moved to England with her family at the age of eight, only returning to Hong Kong after she completed secondary school. Since then, she has made some eighty films spanning most genres-from martial arts and action films to comedies and dramas. She has gone from being a model for the fast-food chain McDonald's (later playing a role as a McDonald's waitress in Peter Chan's Comrades, Almost a Love Story (1996)), to runner-up at the Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant at the age of nineteen, to taking on English and French-speaking roles in Irma Vep (1996) and Augustin, Roi du Kung Fu (1999). Maggie Cheung has matured into not only one of Hong Kong's most talented and popular actresses, but also one of its most versatile. She has done much to bring the visibility of Hong Kong cinema to the rest of the world through her universal appeal and cosmopolitan grace.

Maggie Cheung received her first big break in Jackie Chan's Police Story in 1985. She became an instant hit, replicating her role as Jackie Chan's petulant girlfriend May in the sequels Police Story 2 and Police Story 3. She starred in two films by Wong Kar-wai that saw her break out of the 'May' stereotype into more dramatic roles, receiving critical acclaim for her moving portrayals in As Tears Go By (1988) and Days of Being Wild (1990). Cheung returned to work again with Wong several times: in Ashes of Time (1994), In the Mood for Love and 2046 (2004). Her art house success was also cemented by her role in two Stanley Kwan films; Cheung attained a Best Actress award at Taipei's Golden Horse Festival for her role in Full Moon in New York and another Best Actress Award from the Berlin Film Festival for Center Stage (1992). These films firmly established her local reputation prior to her international cross over success in the French art house film Irma Vep.


Global Popularity

Maggie Cheung's role in Olivier Assayas's Irma Vep was her first outside Asia. Irma Vep is a film about the re-making of a film, Les Vampires, a French classic directed by Louis Feuillade in 1915. Maggie Cheung stars in this film as herself, having just arrived in France from the set of her latest film in Hong Kong. Nobody in the film knows why Maggie, a Chinese actress, has been chosen to star in a French cult classic but the director in the film, Rene Vidal, says that he chose Maggie after seeing her in The Heroic Trio (Johnny To, 1993). Cheung's role in Irma Vep plays on her earlier martial arts/comedic roles in The Heroic Trio (1992) and its sequel The Executioners (1993), both of which also star Michelle Yeoh and Anita Mui as a trio of fighting beauties. Maggie's character in The Heroic Trio is, ironically, called the 'Thief Catcher' - a vampish figure who dresses in leather hot pants and a bra top; in Irma Vep, Maggie Cheung plays a (jewel) thief who wears a latex catsuit. The presence of Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep (mirrored within the film by her casting in Les Vampires) marks the emergence of the global popularity of Hong Kong cinema, in particular through its martial arts tradition. This global popularity has also seen the cross over of other Hong Kong star talents like Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh.

Prior to her role in Irma Vep Cheung had received offers from other non-Asian directors although until Irma Vep she had not been interested in them, stating that they were the "Asian woman stereotype" roles (Shelly Kraicer, Review for the Toronto International Film Festival, 1996,) Interviewed in Sight and Sound magazine, Cheung says: "I really appreciate Olivier [Assayas], because he doesn't want me to pretend I am more Chinese than I really am. I am quite Westernised, since I have lived in England. I wondered if he had a more 'typical Chinese girl' in mind. And he told me, 'Don't ever do that. Just be you.'" (Berenice Reynaud, "I Can't Sell My Acting Like That," Sight and Sound 3, March 1997, 26). Cheung married Assayas in 1998, and although they divorced three years later, she returned to work with him on Clean (2004) - her latest film that won her the prestigious Best Actress Award at Cannes Film Festival this year. Cheung's versatility as an actress has meant that she can never be characterized by "Asian woman stereotypes," always choosing to take on new challenges in her film roles.

A Modern Day Film Star

Not only has Maggie Cheung established a global popularity for herself but she also represents a very modern film star (compared to an actress like Gong Li, for instance, who tends to play historical or traditional roles). Maggie Cheung is quite knowingly and self-consciously a modern day film star, and this is reflected in her film choices. Prior to her role in Irma Vep, Cheung played with the notion of her own star aura in Stanley Kwan's Center Stage. As in Irma Vep, in Center Stage Cheung appears in the present day as herself-an actress-recreating film scenes from an earlier filmic tradition. The film mixes documentary footage with a fictionalised narrative, re-creating the career of Ruan Lingyu, one of Shanghai's most prominent actresses of the 1920s and 1930s. At the beginning of the film, Stanley Kwan interviews Cheung on her own status as an actress, asking her whether she thinks she will be remembered just as Ruan was. Maggie replies, laughingly, "Isn't she an exact replica of myself?" Ironically, by playing icons from the past, Maggie Cheung establishes herself as a figure of modernity.


Immediately after her role in Irma Vep, Cheung starred in Asian-American director Wayne Wang's Chinese Box, which she also describes as "not a stereotypical Chinese role." (Alison Dakota Gee, "She's Not Just a Pretty Face," Los Angeles Times, 16 April 1998, 13). Chinese Box is a film about Hong Kong on the eve of its return to Chinese rule. The film stars Jeremy Irons as John Spencer, a British financial journalist who has lived in Hong Kong for the past fifteen years. John is in love with Vivian (Gong Li), although he later becomes fascinated with a street hustler named Jean (Maggie Cheung), whom he wants to interview. The film is framed by John's attempts to 'understand' these two women although as an 'outsider' such knowledge always eludes him. The film is constructed as a story within a story-there is at least one major love story between John and Vivian, and several other intertwined romances within the larger story of the hand-over of Hong Kong. In many of Cheung's later film roles, she establishes a confluence between the modernity of Hong Kong and a nostalgia for its lost past. This is represented most strikingly in the film In the Mood for Love (2000).

Hong Kong's Nostalgic Body

In the Mood for Love is set in Hong Kong in 1962. The two protagonists-newspaper journalist Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and shipping secretary Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) move into adjacent rooms in a Hong Kong apartment building on the same day. They join other displaced Shanghainese who left the mainland after the communist takeover in 1949. Each night, the two descend the same staircase to buy noodles for dinner, barely acknowledging each other as they pass. Eventually, they discover that their spouses are having an affair and they resist having one of their own when they begin to fall in love.


Much has been made of Cheung's cheongsam (literally means long gown, it refers to a traditional Chinese dress that is long and tight-fitting, with a high neck and long slit on the side) in the film. Shelley Kraicer writes, "Cheung can use her body as an expressive instrument just as effectively as she uses her face. Her posture, the timing of her walk, the way she caresses a door frame all radiate a world of deeply felt, just barely suppressed feeling." (Kraicer, Time Blossoms, Time Fades.) In this film, as in Center Stage, the cheongsam represents the liberated Chinese woman, emerging as a sign of modern Chinese femininity and elegance in the 1920s and 30s.


In the films that I've mentioned, Cheung appears as a figure in the "present" recreating periods and films from the past. She functions as a site of nostalgia for the emergence of Hong Kong modernity across different eras. We can be assured, however, that whatever roles Cheung chooses to take on in the future, she has already established a dedicated audience for herself both locally and internationally.


Related Articles:






Published September 18, 2004


Mentioned Products

  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
  • *Reference Currency: No Reference Currency
 Change Preferences 
Please enable cookies in your browser to experience all the features of our site, including the ability to make a purchase.