8. The Soong Sisters (Mabel Cheung, 1997)
The film is a historical drama based on the lives of the Soong sisters from 1911 to 1949, who married the most important historical figures in China at that time. The eldest, Ai Ling, married Kung Hsiang Hsi, the richest men in the countrty. Ching Ling married Sun Yat Sen, the president and founder of the Republic of China. Mai Ling, the youngest married Sun Yat Sen’s successor, Chiang Kai Shek.
Maggie Cheung plays Ching Ling, who started as Sun Yat Sen’s secretary, later became his wife and then the inheritor of his authority. However, her marriage estranged her from her father, a close friend of Sun, who thought it preposterous for his daughter to marry such an old man. Her role is the biggest in the film and Cheung portrayed it with her usual subtlety and affection.
7. Comrades: Almost a Love Story (Peter Chan, 1996)
Xiaojun is from the mainland who came to Hong Kong to earn money to marry his girlfriend Xiaoting. He then meets Li Qiao, a woman who is also from the mainland but has learnt the ways of the big city and speaks both Cantonese and English. The two of them strike a friendship while she teaches him the ways of Hong Kong. Eventually, the two fall in love.
Maggie Cheung plays Li Qiao, a Guangzhou native who moved to Hong Kong to seek wealth by exploiting naive mainlanders in Hong Kong.
Her performance in “Comrades” is captivating and her role has paved way for many of her later parts. Her biggest prowess lies in the way she combines innocence and ambition in her acting.
The film was a massive winner at the 1996 Hong Kong Film Awards netting nine awards including the Best Actress Award for Maggie Cheung, who won the same award in the Golden Horse and Asia- Pacific Film Festivals.
6. Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002)
During the Warring States period, China was divided into seven kingdoms. Among them, the most powerful was Qin, whose lord intends to conquer the other six and become emperor. To kill the lord of Qin, the other six kingdoms send assassins, chiefly among them Broken Sword and his loved one Flying Snow, and Long Sky with his assistant Moon.
The lord of Qin promised glory and honor to whoever managed to kill these assassins. Eventually, an assassin named Nameless alleges that he had killed all of them and presents their weapons as proof. Subsequently, the king asks him to tell the story.
Through a number of flashbacks, Nameless explains what has happened. But is he actually the one who killed the other assassins or is his presence just an excuse to kill the king?
Maggie Cheung portrays Flying Snow, the daughter of a killed general, who has sworn to avenge her father’s death and kill the lord of Qin. She is also an accomplished swordsman and the lover of Broken Sword.
Cheung proved once more her prowess in both the martial arts’ scenes and the romantic ones. Moreover, she is present in all of the film’s impressive scenes: when she and Nameless face a storm of arrows, when, along Broken Sword she fights ten thousand soldiers, and lastly, her fight with Broken Sword and Moon.
However, her acting prowess and beauty are much more evident in the romantic scenes, where she portrays a woman torn between love and revenge, who hides her feeling underneath a frozen exterior. Probably the most sentimental scene of the film occurs when her feelings finally surface.
5. Song of the Exile (Ann Hui, 1990)
Cheung Hueyin returns to Hong Kong from London in 1973 to attend her younger sister’s wedding. She has just completed her master’s degree in journalism, but, unlike her Caucasian roommates, has been rejected the chance for a BBC job interview. Her friction with her Japanese mother now comes to surface, as the reasons behind the friction appear in flashbacks.
Eventually, Hueyin agrees to accompany her mother to her hometown in Japan, where she experiences the sense of solitude her mother used to feel in Hong Kong, due to language and culture differences.
Maggie Cheung portrays Hueyin with great subtlety, in a role where her greatest achievement lies with the many transformations she presents. Initially she is a lonely student in London, considered exotic by her European classmates. Next, she is a confident young woman in Hong Kong, and then once again a fearful teenager who leaves her family to attend school abroad. Hueyin was one of the best roles of her career, particularly because she was not asked to incorporate the hyperbole other roles demanded.
4. Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas, 1996)
Rene Vidal, a once respected but now sidelined director is about to shoot a remake of Louis Feuillades’s 1915 serial Les Vampires. However, due to his hectic idiosyncrasy, he has decided to cast Maggie Cheung in the leading role, after watching one of her older films named ” Heroic Trio”. So he hires her and she arrives in Paris, having to deal with a chaotic low-budget production, a director who cannot explain to her what she wants her to do, and even a rubber cat suit.
Olivier Assayas based the film almost completely on Maggie Cheung, both upon her beauty and her acting. In that fashion, the film entails many close-ups and a plethora of shots that seem to exist just to portray her from different angles.
She plays her role (herself actually) to perfection, being constantly awkward due to the lack of communication with the majority of the French film crew, the hectic production, and the awful cat suit. In one of the film’s most distinguishing scenes, Cheung, wearing her costume, sneaks around in a hotel, steals some jewelry, and throws them off the roof in the night.
3. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000)
In the 60’s Hong Kong, two neighbors named Chow Mo Wan and Su Li Zhen realize that their spouses are having an affair with each other, a discovery that leaves them unhappy but puzzled by the reason behind their infidelity. Naturally, they become closer, to the disapproval of the conservative society of the time.
Maggie Cheung portrayed Su, a woman who refuses to admit her feelings for Chow and forces herself to bury them deep in her heart, because the social outcry and her unwillingness to commit infidelity.
Elegant and overall gorgeous in her mandarin dresses, Cheung demonstrates tenderness, strength, passion and self-restraint in a true recital of finesse. Moreover, her chemistry with Tony Leung, who plays Chow, is one of the film’s biggest assets.
2. Center Stage (Stanley Kwan, 1991)
Part biopic and part documentary, this film attempts to present the real life of China’s first woman movie star, Ruan Lingyu, focusing on the events that led to her death. The movie alternates between scenes in the film and Ruan’s acquaintances who talk about her life.
Maggie Cheung is astonishing as Ruan Lingyu, playing the femme fatale to perfection, a fact best witnessed in scenes where she informs her lovers that they must abandon their wives and mistresses, and simply marry her. She even manages to act in the same fashion, with confidence and impudence, even when it becomes clear that what she actually desires is a stable family life, in order to focus on her career. Moreover, the scene before her death is utterly sublime.
Cheung won a number of Best Actress awards for this role, including one from the Berlin International Film Festival.
1. Clean (Olivier Assayas, 2004)
Emily Wang is a young woman of Chinese descent, who lives in Paris and presents a TV show about music. At one point, she meets a Canadian musician and producer named Lee Hauser and the two of them strike a relationship that eventually leads to marriage and the birth of their son, Jay. However, they rarely care about him, leaving him with Lee’s parents, in Vancouver.
Moreover, their lives are filled with drugs and general unaccountability, which eventually leads to tragedy when Emily finds her husband dead from overdose and she ends up in prison for illegal possession of drugs. After spending six months in prison and tortured by guilt for Lee’s death, she decides to start a new life. Her first resolve is to win back her son’s love, a task that proves very difficult.
Maggie Cheung portrays Emily, a woman struggling to get over her addictions, to discover her role as a mother and to change radically for a better human being.
Cheung portrayed quite a complex character sincerely and completely, in a laconic fashion, without misplaced outbreaks and redundancies. Her prowess won her the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Author Bio: Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic who focuses on the cinema of East Asia. He enjoys films from all genres, although he is a big fan of exploitation. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.