A week in the company of Maggie Cheung, one of Asia's biggest film stars (and a Bay City Rollers fan), is a lens through which to appreciate the subtlety of Chinese cinemaby Mark Cousins / April 29, 2007 / Leave a comment
I have just spent a week with Maggie Cheung. If you have heard of her, please feel free to swoon. If not, let me explain. Her ex-husband, the French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, said that until he met her he no longer believed that cinema made movie stars with auras. Since the late 1990s and, in particular, since Wong Kar-wai’s swoonably elegant In the Mood for Love (2000), critics have acclaimed Cheung as “an icon of modernity” and “the most fascinating woman in modern cinema.” When, for the first time in its history, the Cannes film festival used a photographic image of a real actress on its poster, that actress was Maggie Cheung. She turned down the chance to be a Bond girl, was a woman warrior in the most commercially successful Chinese film of all time, Hero (2002), is the most famous woman in Hong Kong and one of the most famous in Asia. She came to Edinburgh, where I live, to talk about Chinese films and hang out.
I invited her because I am co-director of a festival called Cinema China, which is touring Britain. Where most festivals now have a film industry marketplace, ours has a series of lectures on Chinese history, society and aesthetics, presented by the University of Edinburgh. I think that’s why Cheung came. We needed a major figure in contemporary Chinese film as our guest of honour, someone whose work would be a lens through which to view that nation’s cinema and, we hoped, China and its people too.
What a lens Cheung turned out to be. One of the first things we talked about in her masterclass was the astonishing work rate of Hong Kong cinema. Cheung has been in 80 films since 1985, regularly making a dozen or more in a year. Some were cheap and forgettable, but many, like Dragon Inn (1992), are complexly engineered action films using thousands of shots, balletic choreography and gravity-defying pugilism. When asked how so many fine-tooled films could be made in such a short period, Cheung answered, “because Chinese people work harder than Europeans.” As if to prove the point, the Chinese state television crew that was in Britain making a documentary about Cinema China kept filming well into the evening, long after the rest of us had conked out.
The second thing that…