When Maggie Cheung walked away from Hollywood

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Maggie Cheung is arguably one of the best actors of her generation – but as her fame rose, she stopped making films…

In 2004, Maggie Cheung announced that she had “turned her back on film” in what was a quietly monumental moment in modern film history. A rising Hong Kong actor, who is now considered to be one of the greatest screen presences of all time, she seemed to be at the peak of her career when her retirement was announced.

It was a sad moment, particularly as she retired at a time when she was embarking on a new filmic journey into Hollywood, catalysed by her marvelous performance in the 1996 Olivier Assayas meta arthouse drama film Irma Vep. In that film, she plays a fictitious, heightened version of herself. The movie is a meditation on the French film industry – a low-key but powerfully satiric production that subsequently boosted her reputation internationally.

She appeared in her first English language film Chinese Box in 1997 alongside Jeremy Irons, which was negatively received, but she followed on from her initial success with Clean in 2004, also directed by her ex-husband Olivier Assayas. In this one, she portrayed a junkie named Emily Wang in a heartfelt and career-defining performance that was universally lauded.

Why, then, did one of the best actors of our time retire from acting when things were only looking up?

At heart, the reason for her retirement was that the dream of stardom had faded for her. As Cheung said at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, “I no longer have that dream and don’t want to act in anything anymore… from ages 18 to 35, I didn’t have my own life and I didn’t know anyone outside of the entertainment industry. Only now do I know how difficult it is to be a good person, and I am learning how.”

New Beginnings

Her growing qualms with the entertainment industry that ultimately led to her retirement propelled her into a life of public recluse, hardly making public appearances apart from the occasional charity fundraiser or award ceremony. However, her promise to learn to be a better person at Taipei Film Festival has been true. She is actively engaged with philanthropy and geopolitics, and in 2010 she was appointed UNICEF’s ambassador to China and continues to participate in large amounts of charity work, indicative of her humble altruism.

Perhaps it was this altruism that led to her dissatisfaction with the superficial and materialist film industry, and industry where profit and box office returns are considered more important than producing good-quality art.

Yet her beneficence is only one of the many reasons Maggie Cheung is considered to be an important figure in the film industry. Her celestial and almost otherworldly persona is really something, and this was seen most clearly in her collaborations with esteemed Chinese director Wong Kar-Wai, appearing in five of his films.

Her seraphic onscreen persona and Wong Kar-Wai’s innovative and masterful direction synphesised together beautifully in In The Mood For Love, a 2000 romantic drama film that was rated the second best film of the 21st century in a 2016 survey by the BBC – behind Mulholland Drive. 

Maggie Cheung in In The Mood For Love

It’s constantly regarded as being one of the most influential films for filmmakers in the modern era, with Sofia Coppola crediting the film as the largest inspiration for her film Lost In Translation, and the similarities are eerie. Both films are not maximalist or expansive in terms of the narrative, but focus on small, delicate and minute issues. It’s not a film necessarily concerned too much with narrative development and a conventional three act structure, but rather is an experimental and contemplative meditation on loneliness.

If you’ve not seen it, it’s a melancholic beauty of a production, with gorgeous cinematography by Christopher Doyle that invites the audience into the film and allows us to absorb the sumptuous visuals. Maggie Cheung truly is the icing on the cake here, with her performance complementing the technical beauty of the film superbly.

But this is far from the only example where this is the case. The films she appears in are elevated by her innately majestic nature. And if this small tribute to Cheung has in any way whetted your appetite to discover more of her work, here are four of her very finest films…

Irma Vep (1996)

Irma Vep is a 1996 satirical drama director by Olivier Assayas, starring Cheung as herself, embroiled in a tumultuous French remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1915 147-minute serial drama film Les Vampires. It’s a self-reflective film, critiquing the xenophobic and harsh nature of the contemporary film industry.

The film is experienced directly from the point of view of Maggie Cheung’s character navigating herself through a production in which she is the only foreigner and a fish out of water. As the film progresses, the disorientation felt by Cheung seeps into the narrative, blurring the lines between reality and fiction and whilst making a poignant and pertinent statement on the hypocrisy and the vitriol of the industry itself.

It’s a wonderfully crafted piece of cinema. Maggie Cheung is leather-clad for most of the film, making her character stand out in almost every scene she’s in like an enlightened dominatrix navigating herself through the maelstrom of the production. The light and airy handheld 16mm cinematography gives the film a vérité edge, but the performances and the film’s descent into into chaos render it an exercise in captivating melodrama, with a final five minutes that’s pure avant-garde cinema, bursting at the seams with visual innovation. It’s not to be missed.

In The Mood For Love (2000)

In The Mood For Love is a 2000 romantic drama directed by Wong Kar-Wai, and is the second film in an informal tetralogy of films, the first being Days Of Being Wild and the third being 2046. Cheung stars as Ms Chang, a seductive enchantress who finds herself falling in love. To say more about the plot would be a sin, as this is a film to be experienced with no prior knowledge of the narrative, but what follows is an insight into loneliness, romance, betrayal, lust and opportunity.

The storyline is minimalist in scope, being a film more about feelings and themes than story progression. It’s a fantastically utilised narrative choice from Wong Kar-Wai, involving us in the depiction of love he creates, something so innocent and yet so wonderful. The muggy technicolor rainbow palette, akin to something you’d see in a giallo film, is wonderful and arguably contains some of the most beautiful shots in the history of modern cinema. Maggie Cheung walking down a claustrophobic, narrowing alleyway guided by the tact eye of cinematographer Christopher Doyle is superb cinema. A must watch.

Maggie Cheung in Hero

Maggie Cheung in Hero (2002)

Center Stage (1991)

Also known as Actress, this is a biographical film directed by Stanley Kwan about the rise and fall of Ruan Lingyu, a leading Chinese silent film actor, who tragically committed suicide at the age of just 24. The film charts her hectic by impactful life, and Maggie Cheung plays her, as always, with real grace and decorum.

In a way, the film is a synedoche for Cheung’s own career – a pioneer when she was active in the industry, but also renowned after. It’s solely underrated and undermined, too, in Cheung’s wide tapestry of work and, if anything, it’s one of her finest roles.

A hallmark of her intellectual tenacity – she switches instantaneously from Shanghainese, Mandarin and Cantonese in her role – the film not only showcases some of her most poignant acting, but her portrayal of crestfallen Ruan Lingyu is haunting and will linger with you for days after watching it. A fantastic film to see Cheung on terrific form, and also to learn more about the Oriental silent film industry back in the 1920s.

Clean (2004)

Reuniting ex-husband and wife team Olivier Assayas and Maggie Cheung, this lugubrious narcotic-fuelled drama stars Cheung as a woman attempting to balance motherhood with her nefarious drug habit. Once again, Cheung’s multi-language skills shine through as she shifts with ease from French, English and Cantonese. This film finds Cheung at her most raw and vulnerable, delivering a believable and authentic performance as a junkie, and it almost reminded me of a toned-down, less shocking version of Requiem For A Dream. It’s a magnificent piece of auteur cinema, and is technically Cheung’s last role before announcing her retirement.

And finally…

I’m a younger film fan, and already Maggie Cheung has entranced me in many ways. I know I’ve got a lot of films left to see, a lot of works left to admire, but I can’t help but feel that Maggie Cheung will go down as having one of the greatest, if not short-lived, acting careers. Even if it isn’t in film, I can’t wait to see what’s in store for her next.

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