Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

[FILM] Why Isn't Maggie Cheung a Hollywood Star?

Expand Messages
  • chiayuan25
    Why Isn t Maggie Cheung a Hollywood Star? By SUSAN DOMINUS The New York Times Magazine Published: November 14, 2004 Having spent the greater part of the day
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 14 11:25 AM
      Why Isn't Maggie Cheung a Hollywood Star?
      The New York Times Magazine
      Published: November 14, 2004

      Having spent the greater part of the day indoors, giving back-to-
      back interviews about her latest film, "Clean," at the Toronto
      International Film Festival, the actress Maggie Cheung exited the
      InterContinental Hotel to meet a spectacularly sunny early fall
      afternoon. As she strode through the doorway, she ran into a friend
      from a film shoot, and Cheung, possibly the most famous woman in
      China, chatted gaily in Cantonese with her colleague, casually
      standing on the sidewalk as if no one would notice. Close to a
      minute ticked by before one of the photographers lingering outside
      the hotel spotted her, possibly because Cheung was wearing Gucci
      sunglasses so large they were more like small, reflective plates
      perched on her fine face. Once one photographer was up and snapping
      there were suddenly 2, then 4, then 16, until a swirling cloud of
      microphones and flashbulbs formed around her, gathering as if by
      some centripetal force, sucking in ever growing numbers of fans and
      quote seekers and photo snappers, most of them Asian cineastes in
      town for the festival.

      Cheung, accustomed to such crowds, is also accustomed to having
      people materialize to help her through them, and a young Canadian
      woman working in public affairs for the festival took Cheung's arm
      uncertainly. Someone hailed a taxi, and Cheung made her way toward
      it, laughing lightly as she turned to wave goodbye to her friend.
      She didn't look as if she'd just escaped a claustrophobic clutch;
      she looked amused and a bit embarrassed, as if she'd just dashed
      through a funny little rain shower without an umbrella.

      The barometer of public reception, for Cheung, is always uncertain
      in North America. In Hong Kong, where she has been a star since
      placing first runner-up in the 1983 Miss Hong Kong pageant at age
      18, Cheung, now 40, once holed up in her apartment for three
      straight weeks to avoid the throng of photographers and reporters
      outside. In New York and Los Angeles, on the other hand, she is
      rarely approached even for an autograph, unless it's from an Asian
      tourist lucky enough to catch her on the street. She is also barely
      a recognizable face in Canada, which may explain why she allowed
      herself the luxury of some spontaneous streetside conversation,
      forgetting that a film festival subverts the normal laws governing
      her fame in this part of the world.

      Cheung has been a fixture of Asian superstardom for 21 years and has
      won more acting awards in China than any other woman. She started
      out as Jackie Chan's long-suffering, slapsticky girlfriend, May, in
      the goofy action-oriented "Police Story" movies. (Chan said that
      when he first saw Cheung on Hong Kong TV, she struck him as someone
      who "wouldn't mind me kicking her down a flight of stairs.")
      Eventually tiring, as much physically as creatively, of action
      films, by the late 80's she had started working with the dreamy,
      painterly filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, trading her role as a plucky comic
      for more nuanced parts in films like "As Tears Go By" and "In the
      Mood for Love" -- women with a noirish unattainability or ingenues
      shedding their innocence. In the mid 90's, she crossed over to
      select Western audiences for the first time, working with the French
      director Olivier Assayas, whom she would eventually marry and who
      directed her recently in "Clean," the film for which she won the
      best actress award at Cannes. For Cheung's Asian audiences, it's as
      if they've watched her morph over the years from Audrey Hepburn to
      Greta Garbo.

      So why is it that American audiences know Cheung only vaguely, if at
      all, as the woman who fended off a torrent of arrows in the Chinese
      film "Hero," which was a sleeper success in the United States this
      summer? It's somewhat mystifying that one of Asia's finest actresses
      is virtually unknown to Hollywood audiences, as if celebrity were
      the one export too fragile to make the 7,000-mile trip across the
      Pacific. Cheung's English, though accented, is fluent; her beauty,
      universal; her talent, unarguable -- the imprimatur of Cannes
      confirmed the cross-cultural appeal her Chinese fans have
      appreciated for decades. To wonder why Cheung isn't a Hollywood star
      is to wonder a bigger question: why hasn't any contemporary Asian
      actress become a major Hollywood star?

      sitting comfortably in the lobby of the boutique hotel where she was
      staying in Toronto, Cheung, still wearing her sunglasses, didn't
      initially seem to find the question particularly compelling. "I
      haven't really bothered to explore it, but maybe it's normal," she
      said. "If you were making a Hong Kong film, what would you expect to
      do with Robert De Niro? He can play an American living in Hong Kong,
      but after that. . . . " She lighted a cigarette, then thought for a
      moment. "Then again, now there are so many Asians living abroad, it
      shouldn't really make a difference."

      In "Clean," set mostly in Paris, Cheung plays a drug addict who is
      trying to recover so she can get her son back from the parents of
      the boy's father, who died of a drug overdose. The character, which
      Assayas, now her ex-husband, wrote specifically for Cheung, happens
      to be Chinese, but that's a minor aspect of her character, not the
      pivotal point of the plot: it's not a film about immigration or
      interracial relationships or cultural misunderstanding. In France,
      the film was widely distributed and hit No. 2 at the box office in
      Paris. Cheung's image appeared on the cover of every major French
      magazine, from Le Figaro's weekly supplement to the downtown Les
      Inrockuptibles. "Ten years ago, I think audiences might have
      thought, What do I care about this Chinese woman?" Cheung said. "In
      Europe, we're about halfway there. But I think maybe American
      audiences still think that."

      Although she answered my questions about "Clean," Cheung started out
      by deftly putting off all other queries, instead posing a rapid-fire
      series of girlish inquiries about her interviewer (marital status,
      job satisfaction, sibling rapport), behavior that's unusual in any
      interview subject, much less a celebrity. At first, it seemed a
      defensive ploy, but eventually she fell into an unguarded
      conversation about the dumping of men ("but let's not call it
      dumping"), Chinese astrology, her thoughts on having kids (not ready
      but unconcerned), her qualms about her resistance to marriage
      (temporarily single at 35 was one thing, she said, but alone at 45 --
      "I think, well, that wouldn't be very nice"). Raised in England,
      Cheung has the curiosity of a royal who has only recently been let
      out of the castle; the freedom of her relative anonymity in the West
      has still not lost its freshness.

      At one point, a suited man from the hotel came over and politely
      apologized that he had to ask Cheung to put out her cigarette, a
      request that appeared to cause him some anguish. Cheung smiled
      sweetly at him, her uptilted face a vision of feminine charm, and
      asked if, Oh, just this once, she might be able to, since no one
      else was around. His face turned bright red, and it looked as if it
      might kill him to insist, but insist he did, at which point Cheung
      sweetly put it out. Forthright with women, she can't help being
      aware of the effect she has on men.

      Assayas, a boyish 49-year-old well known in France for his cerebral
      films, says he was struck by Cheung's charisma the first time he saw
      her in person. "The first time I met her was on a jury at the Venice
      Film Festival," he said when I met with him at a cafe near his home
      in Paris. "We were introduced, and right away I saw in her something
      I had never seen in another actress. In retrospect, I don't know if
      it was love at first sight or something more serious." He paused,
      distracted by what he'd said. "I guess it doesn't get much more
      serious than love at first sight," he mused, then laughed at himself
      and continued. "I thought she had something that is fascinating,
      something I associate more with stars of the past -- she projected
      something entirely striking but also incredibly modern, like an up-
      to-date version of an old-fashioned film star. I realized I'd never
      once made movies with movie stars. I'd made movies with actresses."
      He cast Cheung to play a version of herself in the 1996 film "Irma
      Vep," an independent movie that riffed off the French classic "Les
      Vampires." The two fell in love and married in 1998, then grew apart
      and separated two years later.

      On one of the last nights of the Toronto festival, Assayas joined
      Cheung and several other cast members from "Clean" at a restaurant
      for dinner. Everyone sat a bit awkwardly alongside a tall table, and
      the topic eventually turned to the early days of Assayas and
      Cheung's work together. Because he was drawn to her by her star
      quality, Assayas said, he was surprised to find in Cheung a
      performer whose charisma was completely uncoupled from the Western
      notion of celebrity, which holds that great performances demand
      indulgence and coddling. To the contrary, there's a diligence --
      almost a dutifulness -- common to Cheung's circle of Hong Kong
      performers, most of whom put up with the industry's grueling
      production schedules. Cheung has raced her way through some 75
      films, making as many as 11 in one year during the height of the
      Hong Kong film industry in the late 80's. "You sleep in cars, you
      sleep on the set, anywhere you can," she said. Working on one of
      the "Police Story" films with Jackie Chan, she had to run through a
      stack of bed frames, several of which collapsed on her head, sending
      her to the hospital for 17 stitches.

      That evening, Cheung, who wore her sunglasses even in the dark bar,
      was dressed, as usual, in black, her hair pulled off her face in a
      ponytail, tall boots adding height to her already long-limbed frame.
      As she headed out of the bar, a little on the early side because of
      her jet lag, the American director Harmony Korine, in town for the
      festival, was heading in, and he made a beeline for the actress, his
      head bobbing at about sternum height on Cheung. "Ms. Cheung, I just
      wanted to tell you how much I admire your work," he said, and she
      smiled graciously, the very picture of cinematic royalty, before
      heading out onto a Toronto street where no one took note of who she

      he claim that no Asian actresses are making it big in Hollywood
      inevitably invites counterexamples: Lucy Liu, a star of "Charlie's
      Angels," for one, or Cheung's friend Michelle Yeoh, the former Bond
      girl. There's no denying that these women are stars, but they're
      stars of a specific sort: action heroes, variations of the old Asian
      warrior legends, exotic in both provenance and look. Penelope Cruz
      can play the romantic love interest opposite Tom Cruise, her accent
      nothing more than another adorable accouterment; Halle Berry, for
      better or worse, can get a film like "Catwoman" green-lighted. It's
      nearly impossible, however, to name a studio film in which an Asian-
      American actress plays the leading role, or the love interest, or
      even the love interest's best friend, outside of specifically
      Chinese films like "The Joy Luck Club."

      Part of this disparity can be attributed to simple demographics:
      African-Americans represent 13 percent of the American population,
      Latino-Americans 14 percent, while Asians account for about 4
      percent. But filmmakers don't even represent demographics
      faithfully, argues Jeff Yang, the author of "Once Upon a Time in
      China," a book about Chinese cinema. "Even in a movie set in the
      greater Bay Area," he says, "where one out of three people is Asian-
      American, if you just look at the background scenes, the bystanders,
      there are almost no Asians at all. That's not just politically
      incorrect -- it's fundamentally, demographically, incorrect."

      Janet Yang (no relation to Jeff), who produced "The People Vs. Larry
      Flynt" and "The Joy Luck Club," contends that geography and history
      place Asian actresses too far outside the range of the girl next
      door, practically a prerequisite for female superstardom in this
      country. "Asia has been perceived as the enemy for many years," she
      adds. "Look at all the past major wars -- World War II, Korea, then
      Vietnam. There's this crazy, deep-rooted bias." At the time she
      produced "The Joy Luck Club" in 1993, Yang thought the film was a
      breakthrough; now, she says, studios are even less likely to finance
      such a film, given the absence of a name-brand, non-Asian star.
      Richard Hicks, the president of the Casting Society of America, says
      he proposes Cheung to directors with some regularity: half the time,
      he says, logistics get in the way -- "can we get her here by
      Thursday?" -- but just as often his clients aren't interested in
      casting an Asian.

      Cheung, for her part, has never been driven to disprove American
      audiences' stereotypes of Asian performers. To the contrary, she
      hasn't made much of an effort to break into Hollywood. She has never
      come to Los Angeles just to make the rounds and rarely makes herself
      available for auditions. Given the scarcity of roles she'd like to
      play, it has hardly been worth it to her to pursue Hollywood
      success, she said; her current schedule is demanding enough. When I
      met with her in Toronto, Cheung had made the 17-hour trip from Hong
      Kong to Canada for just four days and was quickly heading back for
      some professional obligations: a promised appearance at the opening
      of a store in Shanghai for Louis Vuitton, and then a couple of days
      of shooting for some mobile-phone ads and commercials for the Hong
      Kong audience.

      Cheung's face is everywhere in Hong Kong. Head to the pharmacy, and
      she smiles at you from an Oil of Olay promotional ad behind the
      counter. Walk by the newsstand, and she's on the cover of Chinese
      Elle and on the billboards at the bus stop. An ad campaign she did
      for Ericsson hand-held phones in the late 90's was so successful it
      was cited as a case study in the Harvard Business Review. An entire
      row of DVD's is devoted to her at the massive HMV on the way to
      Victoria Park. Having significantly reduced the brutal pace of her
      filmmaking, Cheung continues to take on numerous promotions,
      figuring that it's easier to make money in a few days of empty work
      than in a few months of another action film.

      In September, when I visited Cheung in Hong Kong, she had just
      returned from the Vuitton party in Shanghai -- a disaster, she said,
      with photographers popping out of nowhere at the arrival of her
      current boyfriend, Guillaume Brochard, a Frenchman with a jewelry
      business. She enjoyed only a few days of rest before the shoots for
      the mobile-phone ads. Out late the night before, she looked tired
      but still a good 10 years younger than her age. "They don't know I
      was out last night," she whispered in English, as the mobile-phone
      reps scrambled around, trying to find appropriate pieces of
      wardrobe, while a makeup artist tended to her.

      Cheung, who helped design her own theatrical makeup in "Hero,"
      occasionally took one brush or another from the makeup artist to do
      the work herself. Although she clearly knows what she's doing -- she
      teased her eyelashes out, transforming herself from the coolly
      disheveled Emily of "Clean" to the elegant beauty of "In the Mood
      For Love" -- makeup is her least favorite part of her job. During
      the shooting of "In the Mood," for 15 months she went to bed at 8
      a.m., was picked up at noon to arrive on set by 1 p.m. for hair and
      makeup, then shot until late in the night, a schedule that it's hard
      to imagine Nicole Kidman being asked to tolerate.

      While her old friend Ray started pinning up her hair, Cheung ate a
      bowl of rice noodles and someone put in front of her a Hong Kong
      sweet -- a deep-fried French toast sandwich with peanut butter
      slathered in between, which she snacked on as Ray finished up.
      Cheung, who'd shown up in black clogs, jeans and a long-sleeved
      brown T-shirt, disappeared for an instant, returning in a slinky
      black dress for the shoot. It was a rapid-fire transformation that
      suddenly revealed the single curving line of her body.

      In the next room, the shooting started, with Cheung holding the
      cellphone up to her face, propping one leg on a box, hoisting the
      dress up to show some leg, improvising on the various attitudes a
      cellphone can apparently inspire. Chatting between shots, Cheung
      talked about all the traveling she does, the regular 12-hour flights
      between Hong Kong and Paris, where she found an apartment a few
      years ago to escape the press. For most of her life, she has lived
      somewhere between two cultures: when she was 8, her family moved to
      Kent, England, where she lived until she was discovered on the
      street on a brief visit to Hong Kong when she was 17.

      "No matter where I'm going, I feel like I'm leaving something
      behind," she said. "Every time I get on a plane, I cry. The flight
      attendants on Cathay Pacific must think I'm mad." She laughed and
      did an imitation of herself sobbing into her flight pillow.

      To Cheung, it seems unavoidable that an actress be "sad deep down,"
      not so much as a job requirement but as a result of the job itself.
      Through the roles, she said, "you experience a lot more pain than
      normal people -- your mom dies, your dad dies, your boyfriend chucks
      you, you live in the street, and you're really going through these
      emotions. You're trying to know what it feels like to watch a man
      die in front of you, as if you've really lived it. Once that
      division is gone, it gets blurry -- you look back at a shoot and
      think, was I really that sad because in the film my boyfriend didn't
      like me -- or was it something else, something real?"

      She dashed off for a few more moments of posing, all smiles and
      allure, before returning to finish her earlier thought. "I think a
      lot of my sadness has to do with my mother," she said, giving the
      outlines of her mother's difficult life: an unwanted girl, she spent
      her days as a young child roaming the streets because her parents
      wouldn't let her inside except to sleep; she married a man who
      abandoned her for another woman and left her a single mother.

      Someone from the shoot called to Cheung, and she flashed a bright
      smile. "Sorry," she said, heading back to the shoot, untouchably
      glamorous once again. On a computer screen someone enlarged a close-
      up of Cheung's face resting on her hand, as the cameras continued to
      keep shooting, and the image stayed there for the rest of the shoot.
      It was a shot of a flawless, serious face, but a face that also
      looked ambiguously profound, the kind of face onto which its admirer
      could project seduction, or contemplation, or defiance, or sorrow.

      Being a Hong Kong star has some of the advantages of being a
      Hollywood star, among them comparative luxury. Cheung's well-
      situated Hong Kong apartment is done up simply in natural woods and
      elegant beige, its floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto a stunning
      view of Repulse Bay below. The windows in the back of the apartment,
      tinted a dark color, reflect the downside of such celebrity: not
      long after Cheung moved in, photos of her inside her home started
      appearing in the local tabloids, shot from a strip of road half a
      mile away.

      "If I was drinking something, they said, 'Oh, she got dumped, she's
      so miserable she's turning to drink,"' she said, pulling the shades
      down on that window as the sun set. "Or if my mother and sister came
      over, they said, 'She's so miserable she needs her family to support
      her through this hard time."' Cheung had the window treated, but the
      paparazzi -- who treat her particularly harshly because she rarely
      gives interviews -- kept up the bad press. One local magazine shot
      her current boyfriend leaving the apartment, then badly photo-
      shopped the image so it looked as if he were making an obscene
      gesture to photographers with his hand. Waiters and restaurateurs
      are forever tipping off the press so that when Cheung tries to leave
      a restaurant, a phalanx is waiting for her.

      Even Assayas, from whom she's been separated for years, can't cross
      a hotel lobby in Shanghai without being swarmed, because of his
      former association with Cheung. "In China, they care even more about
      their stars than in America," Assayas said, "and they're also less
      shy about approaching them. I don't know what it is. It's less of an
      individualist society, maybe -- it's like they feel their stars
      belong to them, are part of the family -- they're someone in the
      family who made good, and they feel they belong to them." Assayas
      told me a story about accompanying Cheung to a restaurant and
      escorting her to the door of the ladies' room. "She opened the door,
      the door closed behind her -- and then I just heard this girl start
      screaming," he said.

      The costs of Cheung's celebrity don't come, however, with all the
      perks that offset those inconveniences for Hollywood stars. Her
      apartment is exquisitely placed but hardly vast, and no entourage
      follows her from shoot to shoot; on set, no luxury trailer allows
      her to get in character amid down throw pillows and freshly cut
      flowers. No one so much as tells her she's fabulous, she said,
      laughing, which is partly a cultural difference. "Words
      like 'fabulous,' 'wonderful,' 'great,' 'absolutely gorgeous' -- they
      don't exist in Cantonese. It's good, or it's O.K. That's it. It's
      very blunt, Cantonese. I appreciate that there are no fake words,
      but it's hard to switch channels, sometimes, after I've spent time
      in France. I'm just learning to use more generous words myself --
      but you know, 'gorgeous' -- I just can't go to that extreme."

      Cheung said she never wanted to be a movie star: she wanted to be a
      hairdresser. In the Western narrative of celebrity, the star burns
      for fame, works for it, dreams of it. Cheung, by contrast, was
      discovered on the street while visiting Hong Kong with her mother,
      then anointed the traditional Hong Kong way, through a beauty
      contest. Her fame seems disposable to her, even baffling. A kind of
      respectful acclaim, the kind musicians and authors and artists
      enjoy, would suit her better. It is not surprising to learn that
      Hollywood's more arbitrary systems are totally alien to her: for
      example, the dance of an agent soliciting scripts that his celebrity
      client will never get around to reading. Even something as basic as
      the audition is unfamiliar terrain. In Hong Kong, she has been
      handed every role she has played since she was 18.

      Assayas says he thinks that for Cheung's own personal satisfaction,
      she has to keep making films in the West, to stretch herself and her
      acting, especially now that the Hong Kong film industry is in
      serious decline. He recognizes that the roles aren't there; that's
      why he wrote "Clean," even as the relationship was ending, to
      showcase the talent that has nothing to do with cheongsams or Asian
      femininity. American producers do occasionally send Cheung scripts,
      but the independent films are always about, as she put it, "ABC's,"
      or "American-born Chinese," struggling with their identity, and the
      Hollywood scripts feature dragon ladies or Chinatown mafia molls or
      martial artists or mysterious fortunetelling women. Right now the
      West, whether it's New York or Paris, represents freedom for Cheung,
      and to sacrifice that anonymity for an uninspiring role would be

      "Especially since Cannes, I have a nice feeling out in Hong Kong --
      like Maggie is ours, and we're proud of her," she said. Shown a
      script for "X2: X-Men United" a few years back, she declined to
      pursue it, uninterested in the film itself. "If I start making films
      like that, they won't be proud," she said. "I'd feel like I was
      cheating. And I don't want half the world -- we have 1.3 billion
      people in China -- to know I'm cheating. That matters to me. I have
      more pride than that."

      heung often spends her nights e-mailing friends until 5 in the
      morning rather than going out on the town or to awards ceremonies or
      benefits. Occasionally, though, she meets up with friends at a
      restaurant with a private room. Toward the end of my visit, she
      picked me up, along with her boyfriend, in a van with covered
      windows and a driver who took us across the bay to the peninsula
      side of Hong Kong. Cheung, in sunglasses and boots, exited the car
      and started making the half-block walk toward the door. Around her,
      people started walking as if in slow motion, or stopped in their
      tracks altogether, so that it looked as if Cheung were moving at
      double speed. We took an elevator up 20 flights to Aqua, a sleek
      restaurant with interior spaces divided by doors that silently slide
      open upon approach and dizzying views of the glittering Hong Kong
      skyline beyond the bay, like New York's seen through a magnifying
      glass, perfect and arrogant and untouched.

      "A couple of weeks ago, I was in a room like this, and suddenly it
      was like one of those gangster movies, you know?" Cheung said,
      animated and confiding. "The door flew open, and then" -- she shaped
      her hand like a machine gun -- "Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang! All
      these light bulbs started flashing. And then they were gone. My
      friends and I were like, What just happened?"

      As Brochard chatted with a friend of Maggie's who'd just arrived,
      Cheung replied to a few last questions. Other than now -- she and
      Brochard seem particularly content -- when had she been happiest?
      Cheung thought for a moment, then described a time when she stopped
      acting for a long stretch and came to the States with a boyfriend,
      crashing at the home of one of his friends. With her boyfriend,
      Cheung went camping, stayed in hostels, learned to play a good game
      of pool and went bowling. "It was heaven," she said. "We were in Los
      Angeles. And we could go anywhere. No one had any idea who I was."

      Susan Dominus, a contributing writer, last wrote for the magazine
      about the adult children of gay parents.

    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.