MAGGIE CHEUNG has acted in 75 films, but she says she only likes 10 of them and is only proud of 3: “Comrades – Almost a Love Story”, “Clean” and “In the Mood for Love”. In the sorta-sequel to the latter, “2046”, which is opening in Montreal this Friday, she was supposed to play an important part but wound up only appearing on screen for a few minutes. How come? I got to ask her on August 26, when I had the privilege to interview the actress, in town to receive a tribute at the Festival des Films du Monde. Here’s the integral transcript of our conversation.


So I was at the press conference-

There was some very interesting things I wanted to know more about-

Like, you mentioned that you left Hong Kong in 1997. Did it have anything to do with the retrocession?
No, it’s just, I fell in love on that year.

Pretty big year, for you and the country.
Exactly, for all of us.

It may seem like I left because of that, since it’s the same year, but no. Also, I always had an English passport so I never really had to worry about that ’cause I thought, huh, if it gets really bad I will go back to England. But it so happens that I met Olivier, and the only way to be together was for me to go… Because I don’t think he would have survived in Hong Kong! (laughs) And me to survive in a Western country seemed to be easier, at the time.

Many actors, filmmakers around those years went West it seems.
But most of them went before. Most people would immigrate in ’93-94-95-96 cause they were so scared that it was coming, like a countdown, so they were gone. And by 97, actually, a lot of people came back because they already had their green card or passport, what they need. And then most of them were back in the country.

You mean in general or specific to the film industry?
In general.

Because there was a big wave in Hollywood of Hong Kong [actors and directors] which had a big influence…
I think that it was in general, not just in the industry. There was a lot of immigration at the time.

Why do you think you haven’t done any English or American films yet?
Because I haven’t come across a good one yet.

You haven’t met David Lynch yet.
Exactly! I have to get him to notice me.

But I’m sure he’s noticed you, he must have seen some of your films.
He might have noticed my films, but he may not have noticed that this person wants to work with him.

Cause I think he was President of the Cannes festival [jury] one of the years that-
Hmm, not in the years that I was there. But I met him in Venice, actually the same year I met Olivier Assayas, they were in the jury in Venice. We met very briefly, and there Olivier kinda noticed me, and that’s how Irma Vep came.

Would like to do more French films?
I don’t have any desire to do films in any particular country, but I have decided to do films [that are] good, or at least I find good.

So no more action films?
Preferably not. I’ not saying that I don’t like action films to watch, you know, but to make is really, heh.

I was surprised you didn’t name Hero as one of the films you’re the most proud of.
Huh. No.

I think it’s a great film.
It is a great film in many aspects, but not as an actor’s aspect.

Oh no? Because there’s kind of a complex thing, you’re playing one character but there’s different angles-
That’s how I felt when I read the script, but when the film was making, it wasn’t exactly what I imagined. I’m not against what it is now, but because it’s not what I imagined of course you get a bit disappointed. I thought… First of all, Zhang Yimou, his previous work were a lot more low profile.

Yeah, I guess that must have been a surprise.
Yeah, also the script is so complicated I didn’t imagine him to want to make it in such a commercial way. I mean, I think that somehow, there’s a contradiction because if it’s a really commercial film, it shouldn’t be so complicated, in what we’re trying to say. Because reading the script I felt there were many levels to the story, humanity… Just because you tell a story one way and I tell it another way, you can change a whole life, the whole world. It had many of these messages, layers and layers of messages in the script, which in the film is lost cause there’s so much we have to see visually, and it happens so fast. So it’s a bit different than what I imagined.

I had some big arguments with other critics about the ending of the film. Some people actually think it’s fascist. I don’t think so, I think it’s clear that [it doesn’t] support the Emperor and… Do you have an opinion on that?
You mean the ending like, him choosing to kill Jet Li?

No, not that part. I think that part is more like, he had to do it just for, like, image. But people think that, since the Emperor’s a fascist and Jet Li doesn’t kill him, it’s like [the film] approves [of fascism].
You know why? You know why? There’s a story behind this. We started to make the film in August [2001], then 9/11 happened. And it was during the shooting and every day we were talking about this thing on the set. It’s natural, you know, it’s so shocking. And Zhang Yimou really emphasized, the more that we can’t see blood in the film… ‘I don’t wanna see a drop of blood in the film, I don’t wanna see any miskillings…’ And he, suddenly, his morals came above his creativity. Not above, but it came so high that, I think, his creativity had to, like, compromise with a bit of his, morals. But we all agreed, at the time, we didn’t want to make a film about killing for selfishness.

So it would be not so much a film about thousands of years ago, but a commentary about, right now.
Sure. It’s still about a thousand years ago, but because of what happened, it’s so fresh and it shocked us so much… It shouldn’t affect a story that happened a thousand years ago but at the same time we really felt violence should be, littler than possible in film. We should not emphasize or encourage violence.

So you prefer more romantic films like Wong Kar-Wai’s?
In general, yes, as an actress, and even without what we just said. With these films I get to do more of what I’m good at.

When I saw 2046 earlier this year, I was surprised at how small your part is, but from what I understand you didn’t actually shoot new material for that film, he just used some [leftover] stuff from In the Mood for Love?
No, we did shoot some new material, but not much. And it’s all used in the film! I shot like two weeks, but it was more like tests. For Kar-Wai… I mean, I shot those things once, and usually, you know, that’s the rehearsal. Even if he shot it, you know we have to go back to that scene anyway. But I never got around to go back a second time to reshoot those scenes, so they’re a bit like tests, in my mind.

Still, you’re kinda like through the whole film in spirit-
Was I? I haven’s seen the new version. I saw the version in Cannes, which is different… I have to look at it again.

I thought it was really good, and as I was saying, even if it’s just small moments, [your character] goes through the whole film.
She’s like a ghost, still lingering on.

You talked about recording an album, or at least songs. Would you like to do a musical film as well?
I wouldn’t mind, I would love that.

You have a nice voice.
Do I? Thank you! I would love to do a musical. To dance and sing in a film, oh, I would love that. But there aren’t that many great musicals – I mean, there’s not that many musicals anyway.

Well, India is making a lot of them.
Yeah, I should go there and say, ‘Can I have a part?’
A musical and a comedy are some of the things I’d like to do now, after all the depressing things I’ve done.

But the directors you’ve mentioned you want to work with, like Lynch, I don’t know if they are gonna make [a musical or a comedy]
Maybe [Jim] Jarmusch, he could. Maybe Gus Van Sant, maybe he’s tired of making depressing films too! And maybe there are a few directors out there who aren’t making depressing things.

Do you like Paul Thomas Anderson?

Cause he’s talked of making a musical, who knows!
If he’s written a Chinese part.

I think you speak very good English, I think you can play a part that’s not written as Chinese.
I hope so, because I read so many scripts that are like Centre Stage or In the Mood for Love, the women are always suffering… And in Hollywood scripts, I think, when you are Chinese, there has to be a reason why you’re Chinese. Well, Lucy Liu is getting to break that, thanks to her. But apart from that, most [people] wouldn’t cast me or offer the part to me unless they were thinking a bit Chinese.

In Clean, you were-
But that’s Europe. Europe has more things like that, like, Ok, she can be Spanish, she can be Spanish, she can be Indian, you know, it’s a person. I think European audiences also have, especially in France, people like to be more intelligent, or at least to be thought of as intellectuals, so they accept more things that are not “normal”. Americans, they’re still a bit [conservative] about how things should be. Like a film should have a climax, big fight, the baddy should die, the building should blow up, you know. In Europe they break more rules. In America, black is black, Chinese is Chinese, whites are whites, whereas there is a lot more [melting pot] in Europe.

Well, Montréal is kind of a European city.
Sure. Because also the language makes you closer to Europe, the French…

Thank you, I think I ran out of time.
Oh, they gave you the sign, I didn’t see that!

It was great to meet you.
Great to meet you too!

Related links:
My Hero review
The Directors Series: Wong Kar-Wai
Nouveau Cinéma ’04 coverage, including Clean blurb