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April 16, 2006

Maggie's Form


Days of Being Wild/A Fei jing juen
Wong Kar-Wai - 1991
Kino Video Region 1 DVD


Dragon Inn/Xin long men ke zhan
Raymond Lee - 1992
Mei Ah Entertainment Region 0 DVD

I read parts of the New York Times on-line on an irregular basis. By chance, after reading a news story, I checked out the Arts section. There is an article today about Maggie Cheung, primarily in relationship to her ex-husband, filmmaker Olivier Assayas, and their most recent collaboration, Clean which is finally getting a U.S. theatrical run in N.Y.C. The article is somewhat informative, but Assayas made a questionable statement. From the article by Charles Taylor: Mr. Assayas believes that so little was asked of Ms. Cheung in many of the genre films she made in Hong Kong that "she has really learned to be on her own and to struggle for her character and to recreate in her own way the emotions of the character. And at a very late stage in her career she started understanding that everything she learned in making those movies could be put to use in more ambitious films, like the films of Stanley Kwan, the films of Wong Kar-wai."

I'm not sure what Assayas means by "a very late stage in her career". Based on the IMDb filmography, Maggie Cheung began her screen acting career in 1984 at the age of 19. Her first film with Wong, As Tears Go By was made in 1988, four years and eighteen features after her debut. Chueng's first film with Stanley Kwan, Full Moon in New York was just one year later. Centre Stage, the Kwan film that firmly established Cheung as a major star as well as award winning actress, was made in 1992. By the time Maggie Cheung made her first film with Olivier Assayas, Irma Vep, she was was thirty-one years old with almost seventy films to her credit. Cheung as slowed down considerably after the fifteen month shoot for In the Mood for Love, with only three films since winning both the Golden Horse Award and Hong Kong Film Award for best actress in 2000.

It took a while for Maggie Cheung to make a deep impression on me. I had seen her in two Jacky Chan vehicles that played theatrically, Supercop and Twin Dragons, but at the time I had little idea who the actors besides Chan were. Cheung was also in The Heroic Trio, a film I caught at a midnight screening. It's a fun film starring three of the top Hong Kong actresses of the time, with Cheung sharing the screen with Michelle Yeoh and the late, great and frequently hilarious Anita Mui. When I saw In the Mood for Love, I was convinced that one of the reasons why cinema was invented was to film Maggie Cheung from behind, wearing a form-fitting Cheongsam dress. A few months after seeing In the Mood for Love, I bought my first DVD player and began catching up on Hong Kong cinema.

Days of Being Wild looks somewhat like a sketch for Wong Kar-Wai's subsequent films. Two violent scenes indicate the influence of Martin Scorsese which permeated As Tears Go By. The themes of time and memory, love and loss, are explored here with lots of shots featuring clocks or watches. One of the dates in the film is April 16, 1960. Several of Wong's titles indicate some kind of chronology, most literally Ashes of Time. The film takes place in 1960 and 1961. Several of the characters are each given individual moments to provide first person narration. Leslie Chueng meets Maggie Chueng at a food stand, similar to the set up of Chungking Express. Latin dance and Hawaiian (?) guitar music suggest foreign destinations. In Days two men are in the Phillipines, in Happy Together two men are in Buenos Aires. Wong's characters find that travel is usually not an escape from unhappiness. Maggie Cheung portrays Su Li-zhen, a character she would repeat in In the Mood for Love and 2046. Days also marks the first collaboration of Wong with cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Providing confusion for those unfamiliar with Hong Kong cinema, Days of Being Wild also stars Jacky Cheung, who like Leslie Cheung is no relation to Maggie Cheung. Jacky Cheung did however star in the similarly titled but differently plotted Days of Being Dumb.

Dragon Inn is the Tsui Hark produced remake of a film by King Hu. It was Hu's film that was on the theater screen in Goodbye, Dragon Inn. The film is about two warring factions in Ming era China. A group led by Brigitte Lin who is initially disguised as a man are protecting two royal children from a powerful eunuch. Cheung portrays Jade, the owner of the Dragon Inn, a hotel in the middle of a vast desert. It's not enough for Cheung to sell her loyalties to the highest bidder, in her restaurant she serves "spicy meat buns" with a recipe from the Sweeney Todd cookbook. This is a film where there is little difference between foreplay and hand-to-hand combat. Whether throwing sharp objects at each other, or simply exchanging verbal barbs, the sparks between Lin and Cheung are palpable. There are two action set pieces involving elaborate sword play and gymnastics, as well as scenes with grisly humor. With Lin, an actress famed for several gender bending performances, the best scenes are with Cheung, where the boys aren't.

Posted by peter at April 16, 2006 05:29 PM