Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Beauty and Grace on Hong Kong's Silver Screen

Normally our blog entries are about Hong Kong history. But as we make clear in our little bio above this space, our blog is properly about Hong Kong heritage, and that means not just the past, but also Hong Kong's rich popular culture. On our Tsim Sha Tsui walking tour, we discuss at length Hong Kong's movie industry, its main players (including the triads) and what its ethos is all about. We try not to wax too lyrical about what is a very pragmatic industry, while letting our genuine enthusiasm for some great Hong Kong films of the past to shine through.

Today seems a good day to discuss Hong Kong's movie industry, since it is the birthday of the beautiful, ageless Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk (you can look up the year of her birth on the web; I shall not do her the dishonor here!). Her longevity in the movie business is remarkable, considering her first role came as the girlfriend of Jackie Chan in the first Police Story series, and that in Hong Kong the industry gives its film actresses a sadly short shelf life (unlike Leon Lai, Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau or Aaron Kwok).

She starred in two of my favorite films of all time - Comrades, Almost a Love Story and In the Mood for Love. She plays very different characters in those two films, but in both she exudes an effortless grace and beauty that steals the show, and succeeds admirably in conveying powerful emotions both verbally and silently in the context of a Wong Kar-Wai mise-en-scene. Director Wong had already cast her in his first feature film As Tears Go By, and used her again to great effect in Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, In the Mood for Love and 2046. Her ability to portray languid desire, passionate longing, controlled vehemence and a mood of loss and dislocation has made her perfect for Wong's films.

She actually grew up in the UK, and only returned to Hong Kong as a teenager, with Cantonese as her second language. Her talent and beauty got her noticed, though, first at a Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant and then later as a movie star. She became incredibly prolific due to the offers flooding in, particularly after Centre Stage in 1990, that made her as acclaimed for her acting ability as for her striking presence onscreen. But three years and 28 films later, she took a break, exhausted by the work. Perhaps what sealed that decision was the effort of working on Wong Kar-Wai's Ashes movie, which took three years and so much film Kodak refused to ever work with him again!

She resumed her career triumphantly though in 1997 with Comrades, which beautifully portrayed the cosmopolitan element of the Hong Kong identity and of many back-and-forth emigres like herself. She has been in a number of Western films (even married at one point to French director Olivier Assayas), and her ability to speak English, French and Cantonese fluently (and Mandarin) attests at once to her global identity and to the conundrum of being from Hong Kong.

She has perhaps never achieved the name recognition in the West that Zhang Ziyi seems to have attained for herself now, but there is no doubt in my mind which female protagonist in Zhang Yimou's Hero was more captivating to watch. If you haven't seen her films, go and treat yourself. Maggie Cheung at her best demonstrates Hong Kong cinema is about more than triad films.


Dave and Stefan said...

Well, if she does need to know where Maggie got her cheongsams especially made for the movie, it was at Linva Tailor on Cochrane Street (near Dublin Jack's). But then again you may not want her in possession of that information!

Spike said...

I had the opportunity to meet Maggie in 2000. I was living in San Francisco and one morning found a film crew working across the street from my office. I spotted both Maggie and Leon Lai and ran upstairs to get some paper and a pen. Waiting for a break, I approached Maggie for an autograph. She was genuinely nice and kept chatting with me for about 10 minutes until the crew was ready to start filming again. At the next break, I went up to Leon. "How do you know who I am?" he barked at me. "Er, um, well, I used to live in Hong Kong." So he dashed off the autograph, practically tossed the pen and paper back at me and turned away. Ah, but Maggie .....

Dave and Stefan said...

Wow Spike, that's quite a story! I am glad to see one of my personal screen idols is a nice person in real life. I will kind of go along with the idea that Leon Lai is a chump, but Maggie Cheung is someone that seems to be able to rise above cultural stereotypes.

I would also consider that a very memorable encounter. You lucky man.

By the way, I was working in San Francisco briefly in 1999 - where was your office? I was on California, 555 I think.

Spike said...

Let's see, in '99 I was working for Schwab at 345 Cali. Left there at the end of the year and went to work for a start-up only a block or two away.

Yes my encounter with Maggie was sweet. I think it was soon after she met me that she got divorced. I guess she couldn't figure out how to contact me after that.

(And speaking of Leon, a pal 'o mine used to live in the same building. And told me that many mornings, leaving for work, he'd end up sharing the elevator with Shu Qi. And that she looked great in person, even in the mornings.)

Anonymous said...

Hi, i thought the cheongsams are from Long Kong Ladies' ...Situated in Causeway Bay of Hong Kong? This info is from the movie website .

Anyway...it so cool! She single handedly popularise high-collared cheongsam again!

Dave and Stefan said...

Spike you are too funny! Next time I see Maggie I'll be sure to pass along your e-mail address. Hsu Qi got the best of Leon from what I understand. My business partner has met her a few times in a group and by all accounts she is quite attractive in person.:)

Yes Martin, I quite agree about the cheongsam, or qipao as the mandarin speakers like to say. My wife rather took a dim view of my fascination with the movie and willingness to watch it repeatedly to 'understand' it better.:)

Anonymous said...

Hi,Maggie is also my muse. In my view point, she is more than an actress. Her way of life inspires me. As to her films, Center Stage was released in 1991 instead of 1990, and Comrades 1996 instead of 1997. :)
btw, have u seen Clean?