By Andrea Meyer
Close your eyes and picture Maggie Cheung. Are you envisioning the impeccable beauty of “In the Mood for Love,” lithe body tucked into an elegant cheongsam and emotions bottled up somewhere deep inside? The ruthless killer soaring above swaying yellow trees, sword poised, face placid, in “Hero”? Or perhaps “Irma Vep”‘s catlike Hong Kong star-slash-burglar in black leaping from one Parisian rooftop to the next? Time and again Cheung is flawlessly lovely, emotionally refined even when vulnerable and jilted as in “Days of Being Wild” the epitome of grace. Until now.
For “Clean” (in theaters April 28), the Hong Kong actress who has appeared in 80-some-odd films, paired up again with “Irma Vep” director Olivier Assayas whom Cheung married and divorced since their last collaboration to play a sallow, frizzy-haired ex-con with a drug habit and a penchant for disaster. And Cheung loved every minute of it. “It was great,” she says of the experience. “Of course it’s great to be beautiful in a movie… but if you don’t have a break, when you can just go in your jeans and no hair and makeup… I’m just wasting my life. You don’t need to prove you’re beautiful again and again and again. It’s like you have two films [where] you’re beautiful and then I would prefer to prove I can act.”
“Clean” gave Cheung that opportunity. She plays Emily, a strung-out emotional wreck who has nothing to live for except the son she dumped with her in-laws while living in a rock ‘n’ roll haze, desperately clinging to the dregs of her musician husband’s washed up career. When he dies of an overdose in a seedy motel room and Emily gets tossed into prison for possession, she is faced with an opportunity to try to kick the drugs, the methadone, the reckless refusal to lead a normal life, in order to become a woman suitable of raising the son her in-laws won’t let her touch unless she cleans up.
“The part is so much like me, except for the drug elements, so I really felt there’s not much designing to do,” Cheung says of the role that won her the prestigious award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. “It’s ironic because this is the film I was laziest on, but I got the biggest outcome from it… I wasn’t lazy on the set, but after I finished reading the script the first time, I decided I know what it is, I’m gonna put it away. I thought you have to be very spontaneous.”
Assayas’ directing style leant itself the freewheeling performance that Cheung craved. She says if Wong Kar-Wai, the director of such achingly gorgeous films as “In the Mood for Love” and “Days of Being Wild,” makes movies with the breathtaking precision of a Monet, painstakingly leading his actors through meticulous take after meticulous take (after meticulous take…), Assayas is more like Jackson Pollock, splattering actors and emotions liberally all over a bare canvas. “I was just doing whatever I wanted and the camera would move with me. I was totally free,” Cheung says. “Olivier would say to the cameraman, ‘I don’t want her to have any limits. I just want her to move and you follow her. Whatever she needs to do in this shot, we’ll catch it,’ whereas Kar-Wai’s set would be like, ‘Okay, three steps forward, turn around and then walk five more steps and your head faces left but your body more to the right and then that’s the perfect light where you say your first line.'”
While Cheung says her career would not be complete without both directors and their opposing styles, right now she hopes to get a crack at more films in the more realistic style of “Clean.” “You just build it all up inside and you go do it with no reservation, with nothing you have to care about except that emotion,” she said. “It’s just so nice for an actor who wants to really act. I think doing more realistic films, I get the real joy of being an actress.”
With help from Assayas and the rest of his talented cast, including a somber Nick Nolte as her father-in-law, Cheung has created the rare recovery film that is raw and never cloying. There is no 12-step circle for reluctant breakthroughs to take place, no seductive former friend trying to make her do lines, not even a wrenching scene of sweats and puking as the imprisoned junkie cold turkeys out her poison. “Olivier hates dramatic scenes,” she says. “Every time we’d see a Hollywood film and there was a calculated moment oh,we all need to cry now Olivier would sigh, roll his eyes, shaking and sighing and I’d be like, ‘It’s so sad.’ He really avoids all the clichÃƒÂ© dramas in any of his films.”
Another unexpected perk of the movie is the attention Cheung has received for her singing. In the film, Emily has the opportunity to record a couple of songs, and Cheung did the singing herself. “Since then record companies have been approaching me and I’m on the verge of thinking, hmm, should I make an album or not?” While she has recorded one song before, with Tony Leung for the soundtrack of “In the Mood for Love,” she’s never thought of herself as a professional musician. “In Hong Kong, most actors do both,” she says. “All my fellow actors have had an album, at least one, except for me. It’s something people thought I would never do, so because of that, I might do it.”
If “Clean” has brought Cheung unexpected creative challenges and professional opportunities, the pleasure of starring in a Wong Kar-Wai film is something else entirely. “I enjoy watching ‘In the Mood for Love,’ but it’s not something you can do everyday,” she says, recalling the great director’s perfectionism. “‘Can you have your face angled this way because the light is coming through there and this shadow is great.’ I’m so glad to have ‘In the Mood for Love’ on my list until I’m 60 or 70, but if you say tomorrow, come to the set and do another 16 months of ‘In the Mood for Love,’ this is a big decision to make. It’s heavy everyday. You think, oh shit, I have a spot! Whereas in ‘Clean,’ it doesn’t matter. It’s like, ‘Add more [dark under-eye] circles! That’s what we want.”
“Clean” is now playing in New York.