Maggie Cheung, long a favorite subject of gossip, gave her fans yet another juicy topic of conversation Saturday after winning the Best Actress Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Cheung won for her role in Clean by director Olivier Assayas about Emily, a mother who tries to kick her drug habit and reconcile with her long-lost son.
"It's really an incredible time in my life," Maggie Cheung said during the award ceremony.
With many roles to her credit in a career spanning nearly two decades, Cheung said that the role of Emily was a challenge.
"It was difficult to play but not the most difficult technically speaking," she said at the press conference during the festival. "It was difficult because it was painful.
"Other directors might let me play other roles, like that of a junkie, but only Olivier trusted me enough to play it as I felt."
Clean tells the story of Emily, the widow of a rock star killed by an overdose, who is trying to rebuild her life. When she gets out of prison, where she was being held on drugs charges, Emily is determined to get her son back from her parents-in-law.
"She discovers herself when she frees herself of everything that is imagined about her," explains director Olivier Assayas. "I wanted to make a film carried by faith in the idea that people can change."
Around Maggie Cheung, the muse of Asian cinema--and the filmmaker's ex-wife--Assayas has brought together an international cast including Nick Nolte, Beatrice Dalle, Jeanne Balibar and rapper Tricky, who plays himself.
"I knew I would have the lead role even before the script was written," Cheung said. "Working with Olivier is like working with an old friend. Different than other directors who have a certain image of me, Olivier really knows who I am."
For Cheung's fans, the best actress award at Cannes Festival is pleasant but not a surprise.
Many are simply infatuated with Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, best known to Western audiences for her role as Jackie Chan's ever-suffering girlfriend May in the popular Police Story series.
Born in Hong Kong in 1964, she emigrated to England with her family when she was eight, but she returned to Hong Kong in 1981 to pursue a career in modeling. In 1983, she was runner-up in the Miss Hong Kong contest and also appeared in the Miss World pageant, which led to a contract with TVB, the television arm of the Shaw Bros. studio.
It was during one of her TVB appearances that she caught Jackie Chan's eye.
"She wouldn't mind me kicking her down a flight of stairs," he thought at the time.
Chan cast Cheung as May in Police Story (1985), which turned out to be a huge hit and made her a star almost overnight.
However, Cheung sought to break out of her stereotypical role as the weak and clumsy May by taking more dramatic roles.
Her work with noted director Wong Kar-Wai garnered critical praise, first in 1988 with As Tears Go By and then in 1990 with Days of Being Wild. She also won a Best Actress Award the same year at Taipei's Golden Horse Festival for her work in Full Moon in New York.
In 1991, she became the first Chinese performer to win a Best Actress Award at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival, for Center Stage.
Cheung did not forget where she got her start though, and in 1992 she returned to work with Jackie Chan in Police Story 3: Super Cop, where she once again reprised the role of May, this time being upstaged not by Chan, but by Michelle Yeoh.
Cheung got a little revenge in the sci-fi martial arts smash hit Heroic Trio (1992) and its sequel Executioners (1993), where she proved she could be more than just a punching bag in an action movie, impressing both critics and audiences with her martial arts skills as she stood toe-to-toe with Yeoh.
However, Cheung's busy schedule eventually began to take its toll. Not only was she shooting several films a year, but also the Hong Kong tabloid press began hounding her incessantly. In 1994, she took a break from making films, during which time wild rumors about her began cropping up in the Hong Kong press.
By then, Cheung had reached the age when most Hong Kong actresses retire or move to singing or television and most people thought Cheung would never work in films again.
However, she returned in 1996, completing several movies such as Irma Vep and The Chinese Box (both 1997).
She now spends most of her time in France.
Cheung won critical acclaim and a Taiwanese Golden Horse award for her role in art house darling Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love (2000).
(China Daily May 24, 2004)