In addition to playing Jackie Chan's romantic interest in a half dozen films Maggie Cheung has been a luminous object of desire in
In the Mood for Love , a street urchin in
Chinese Box , and a super hero in
Heroic Trio . I asked her about her career choices a few years ago she said she doesn't feel compelled to market herself to Hollywood, and she'd rather sit on the sidelines that take a dumb role.
MAGGIE CHEUNG: I really do want to look for things that I can feel for and feel that that's exciting to play and I don't want to be ashamed of myself in the end for because I'm greedy for some sort of fame and money. (:23)
But Cheung is greedy for films that have something to say and parts she can sink her teeth into. Two of her best roles have come in a pair of French films written expressly for her by Olivier Assayas. She made the brash Irma Vep while married to Assayas and she made Clean just after their divorce. Their marriage may be over but their creative partnership is still alive and well. Once again Assayas pushes Cheung in new directions and she's more than up to the challenge.
CLIP SFX of police and Emily at the scene of Lee's death. (:10)
In Clean , she plays Emily, a heroin addict whose fading rock star husband Lee dies of an overdose in a hotel room. She's arrested for possession but not implicated in his death. But Lee's manager holds Emily accountable. When he visits her in prison, he can't wait to cut her loose.
CLIP Vernon: I signed a contract for Lee's record he's obviously more interesting dead than alive. I fielded a lot of offers and accepted the most prestigious of course I'm joking I mean the most lucrative. It will pay some debts and your lawyers fees.
Vernon: Don't thank me. I did it for Lee. You won't have to pay for a thing in return I don't want you to ask me for anything ever again. (:30)
Emily serves a six-month term for drug possession. When she gets out, she meets with Lee's father Albrecht. Lee's parents have taken custody of Jay, Lee and Emily's young son.
CLIP Albrecht: I'm sure the lawyer told you the court handed down it's decision yesterday. Jay is staying with us. Father dead, mother in prison.
Emily: Yeah, no home, no job, nothing.
Albrecht: Do you intend to appeal it?
Emily: Of course not, I can't take care of him right now. (:30)
Albrecht forces Emily to take a good hard look at herself. He also proves to be an unexpected ally in her battle to rebuild her life.
CLIP Albrecht: I believe in forgiveness. People change if they need to they change.
And Emily desperately needs to change. If she's ever to see her son again, she must overhaul her life. That means she'll have to grow up, get a job and kick her drug habit. The title Clean refers not only to Emily's attempt to get free of drugs but also to her need to come clean emotionally, to stop making excuses, so that she can accept responsibility for her own life.
Writer-director Olivier Assayas says that he wanted to construct a project for Maggie Cheung in which she wouldn't be 'a Chinese woman in a western film or playing some archetype of a Chinese woman.' With Clean , he affords Cheung her first truly Western role, and a character not defined in the least by her ethnic background. Emily globetrots and this allows Cheung an opportunity to display her cosmopolitan background as she performs in English, French and Mandarin. Cheung also sings for the first time as Emily attempts to find a creative career that's more challenging than selling clothes at a French department store.
CLIP Albrecht: So you're quitting?
Emily: Selling clothes for active women at Printemps? Yes.
Albrecht: I think it's brave of you. It's easy to be brave when things are going well. But when life is difficult, it's unusual and special.
Clean proves to be a beautiful duet for Nick Nolte and Maggie Cheung. Assayas provides both of them with roles that are very different from what they've played in the past. Nolte gets a chance to be gentle and nurturing while Cheung gets to play a complex and not always sympathetic contemporary woman. The two work exquisitely together, building a guarded yet tender relationship based on mutual loss. While their scenes together are a marvel of delicate craft, the film ultimately belongs to Cheung who's in almost every scene. She's a radiant screen presence and the camera loves observing her. As an actress she always seems polished and assured, and never makes a false move. As Emily, she breaks new ground to deliver a gritty, edgy and vulnerable performance. -----