From her early “eye candy” role as Jackie Chan’s girlfriend in Hong Kong action hit Police Story (1985) and the true beginning of a serious acting career in Wong Kar-wai’s directorial debut As Tears Go By (1988), to iconic roles in Irma Vepi (1996), In the Mood for Love (2000), and clean (2004), Maggie Cheung is known as one of Hong Kong’s most beloved actresses. She received five record-breaking Hong Kong Film Awards and became the first Asian to win the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Unfortunately, Cheung disappeared from cinema screens in the mid-2000s. While we are still hoping for the actress’ comeback, let’s take a look at her best performances.
7 As Tears Go By
The role in the 1988 action crime drama As Tears Go By is the first of Cheung’s frequent collaborations with legendary director Wong Kar-wai and her first opportunity at serious dramatic acting. In the film, Cheung portrays Ngor, a poor girl who comes to Hong Kong for a medical procedure and falls in love with her gangster cousin Wah (played by one of Hong Kong’s most successful actors, Andy Lau).
The actress brings a lot of vulnerability and fragility to the often stylized but harsh description of street gangs in Wong Kar-wai’s impressive debut. As Tears Go By opened doors for Cheung in cinema.
6 Comrades: Almost a Love Story
The biggest winner at the 1996 Hong Kong Film Awards with nine awards, including the Best Film and the Best Actress for Cheung, Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story follows an up-and-down romance between two Chinese immigrants (played by Maggie Cheung and Hong Kong pop star Leon Lai). Playing the materialistic and lonely Li Qiao who desperately wants to get rich, Cheung perfectly combines ambition and innocence. The actress is simply brilliant in one of the greatest romances of Hong Kong cinema.
Even after establishing herself as a serious dramatic actress, Cheung didn’t stop doing popular action films and impressing audiences with her martial arts skills. After Jackie Chan’s action blockbuster Police Story and a smash hit about superheroes The Heroic Triothe actress shined in the Academy Award-nominated 2002 wuxia film hero. Directed by Zhang Yimou, the film is set in ancient China and centers on the Qin Empire whose king intends to conquer China’s other six kingdoms and become the first Emperor of his country. Cheung steps into the role of a skilled assassin Flying Snow who wants to take revenge on the king. The actress proved her versatility with such an epic role.
4 Center Stage
Stanley Kwan’s 1991 lush biopic Center Stage stars Cheung as the “Chinese Garbo,” silent film icon Ruan Lingyu, who made 29 films and died by suicide at age 24. The film describes the tragic life of the most famous Chinese star of the 1930s and focuses on the events that led to Lingyu’s death. “It’s one of those movies crazy in love with movies, and as Ruan, Cheung is a true heartbreaker: radiant, sweet, and compassionate, a larger-than-life goddess of impossible poise, tenderness, and confident modesty”, The Village Voice wrote. For Cheung, it is a breakout role, for which she won the Best Actress award at Berlin International Film Festival – the first Hong Kong performer to do so.
3 Irma Vepi
Maggie Cheung with French director Olivier Assayas at the Venice Film Festival premiere of Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time. Assayas was amazed by the actress’ performance, saying, “I didn’t think contemporary cinema could still produce an actress with such an aura. I felt like a little kid looking at the great stars of the past.” A year later, the filmmaker offered Cheung a leading role in his film Irma Vepi. In this 1996 comedy-drama, the Hong Kong star plays a fictionalized version of herself, a popular actress in a tight latex rubber catsuit hired for a chaotic remake of the classic silent film Les Vampires. Cheung was perfect for the role.
2 In the Mood for Love
Of the five films Wong Kar-wai and Maggie Cheung have made together, none highlights the actress’ talent quite like the 2000 romantic drama In the Mood for Love. This film tells the breathtakingly gorgeous story of the smoldering romance between two neighbors, Mrs. Chan (Cheung) and Mr. Chow (played by Tony Leung, another beloved icon of Hong Kong cinema), whose partners have an affair together.
In the Mood for Love is simply one of the greatest films of the 2000s that is enhanced by Cheung’s presence. Elegant and tender in her floral-patterned silk dresses, the actress lights up the screen.
Olivier Assayas and Maggie Cheung made the 2004 drama clean after their brief marriage. “The sadness I was carrying around helped me play Emily,” Cheung told China Daily. In the film, she portrays an addicted wife of a cult rock star who finds her husband dead from an overdose and decides to start a new life. It is one of Cheung’s most complex and moving performances, which won her the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. Also, it’s Cheung’s last prominent role so far.