1, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 17
Hu/Assignment Asia for TIME
Just 19 years of age, Cheung has displayed undeniable star power
as an actress and a top-of-the-pops singer.
has risen like a rocket. She can cry like a river. But Cecilia Cheung,
Hong Kong's hottest actress, has a life more turbulent than any of her
By RICHARD CORLISS Hong Kong
It's only a few minutes into the new film Twelve Nights, and Jeannie,
the airline employee played by Cecilia Cheung Pak-chi, has already been
two-timed by her sleazy boyfriend. She puts a pretty face on her misery
and insists she's not really sad, she's just pretending. A chum is skeptical:
"How can you pretend to be sad?" Cheung lowers her head, slowly working
up to a rending sob. She stops and looks up. "How was that?" she asks.
Just fine. It's called acting, and after only five films Cheung seemingly
has it all down. She can go for power or nuance, and get both at the same
time. Subtle feelings flash and pulse across her face, which can send
the audience complex signals (I'm sad but I won't show it; I hate the
way I feel, but I'll survive and be stronger for it) without her seeming
to have to shout about it. At the end of Cheung's "pretend" scene, for
example, the viewer realizes that Jeannie really was sad. Such moments
of delicacy and self-assurance would do any veteran actress proud. But
Cheung had no training before she stepped into a starring role in her
first film. Oh, and she won't be 20 until May 29.
Last week, at the Hong Kong Film Awards, she won the prize for Best Newcomer,
in the spectral weepie Fly Me to Polaris. She was the first actor in the
18-year history of that category to be nominated for two, very different
roles: as Polaris' demure nurse, who is visited and romanced by the ghost
of a young blind man she secretly loved, and as a mouthy B-girl in Stephen
Chow's King of Comedy. She has also played a dragstrip groupie (in The
Legend of Speed) and thrown herself into an effects-laden action film
(Tokyo Raiders). In her spare time she's a top-of-the-pops singer with
a knowing, seductive voice. What else can she do? Wait and see-because
this kid will try anything. She is as nervy as she is gifted.
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CINEMA: Hong Kong's
Nervy, gifted and terribly precocious, actress Cecilia Cheung may
be the local film industry's next great hope
Interview: Cecelia shuns fame, rarely goes out, and has already
moved house five times this year to escape press attention
Me to Polaris put her on the map," notes Peter Chan, producer of Twelve
Nights. "But if Cecilia had only that, people wouldn't take her seriously."
Her performance as a foul-mouthed cigarette-smoking character in King
of Comedy helped to paint a different picture. No baby-faced actress ever
started by talking with a harsh voice like that. Twelve Nights is a mature
and sophisticated piece of material. Put the three together and she has
a very broad portfolio. "She's quite a phenomenon," Chan declares.
Just as impressive as Cheung's range is her reach: she has the movie star's
gift of touching her fans. She inspires both identification and veneration.
That makes her the hottest out-of-nowhere actress in years, and a hope
of the Hong Kong movie industry for years to come. "Right now," declares
Raymond Chow, whose Golden Harvest company released Twelve Nights, "Cecilia
Cheung is the It Girl of Hong Kong cinema." And she has a decent shot
at the long-term eminence of the Asian goddess she most admires (and much
resembles), Maggie Cheung. "Even Maggie didn't get the kind of attention
in three years that Cecilia's getting in just a year," says Chan, who
directed Cheung in Comrades, Almost a Love Story. "Maggie bloomed more
slowly before she evolved into what she is today. But Cecilia happened
overnight, just like that."
All the swirling ambiguities of the characters she portrays exist in Cheung
herself. Her directors speak of her as mature, and she is that. When she
speaks of her misfortunes and resentments, she does so with the semi-detached
air of a woman who has taught herself to cope with life's pains. Yet she
has a schoolgirl's devotion to her controversial family and a disdain
for the boogie-till-dawn regimen of the typical young star. "I tend to
stay at home with my family," she says. "In my free time, I listen to
music. I don't have many friends. I don't like discos or parties. I don't
like the night time. I don't think about fame. And even though I have
a lot of problems, I'm a happy girl. No matter how sad the day before
was, I always wake up happy, ready to start each day fresh."
This beguiling mixture of nonchalance and grit, optimism and fatalism
may have its root in a home environment that would forge any girl's sugar
and spice into a will of steel. "She's lived through so much," says Raymond
Chow. "I don't know many people who have gone through so much, so young.
Her life is a movie in itself."
A provisional title for that movie might be The Godfather's Daughter.
Her celebrity has been clouded by reports alleging that her father is
an important associate of one of the major Hong Kong Triads. Stories pock
the local press about rival thugs striking back at him by threatening
to rape Cecilia and putting out contracts on her life. Asked if these
tales are true, she says, "Yes. But I don't feel too much threat. I accept
what he does. I knew from a young age he was involved with the Triads.
I don't feel ashamed. I love him. We had long periods apart, but now we're
Cecilia's parents divorced when she was a child. At 14 she went to Australia
for three years to live with an aunt and go to school. Cheung found it
"very peaceful, very comfortable-not like Hong Kong." But she didn't finish
her studies. "I was missing my family too much." Back home, she got the
little break that led to the big break. "I had a friend who worked in
a hair salon," she recalls. "He was doing a runway show, and he asked
for some help. During the show I was introduced to people." She landed
a commercial for lemon tea, and it sparked a little sensation. Soon she
was cast as the female lead in King of Comedy. In her first feature, she
would steal scenes from Hong Kong's top box-office star of the '90s.
Hu/Assignment Asia for TIME
Named Hong Kong's Best newcomer, Cheung can be nuanced, as in Twelve
Nights, of forceful, as in Tokyo Raiders.
of Comedy is a splendid showcase for the raucous side of Cheung's talent.
As a nightclub hostess who is told to go for acting lessons so she can
keep a straight face and a strong stomach when chatting up her ugly clients,
Cheung does bawdy beautifully. To the acting teacher played by Chow, she
offers equal measures of flirtation and contempt. "Rehearsing" the proper
behavior for her job, she cannily overdoes it and ends up with her legs
around his waist. The star shows his generosity not just by casting the
novice but by playing the mild man to her anarchic spirit. Cheung, in
other words, gets the traditional Stephen Chow role.
edition's table of contents
Yet she was neither flattered nor cowed by the role. "To be honest," she
says, "I had no feeling when I took the movie. Without any experience,
I had no idea whether I could act, no idea what to do on the set. I just
did what they asked me to. Stephen didn't teach me much, except through
his eyes, which are very expressive. He just kept telling me to be myself.
I think that sometimes he thought I was hard work."
The work paid off with Polaris. Perfectly paired with Taiwanese singer
Richie Ren (Yam Yin-chai)-his dimpled earnestness matching her proletarian
radiance-Cheung helped raise a Heaven Can Wait knock-off to the empyrean
of poignant romance. "I wanted to find a good-looking and adorable girl,"
says Jingle Ma, the film's director. "The first time I met Cecilia, I
saw that she had very strong emotional feelings for her family, so I thought
she could handle emotional scenes much more explosively than others. She's
such a natural; basically she was an instant choice."
The sobbing scenes (she spends most of Polaris seesawing between depression
and hysteria) became her trademark-the money shots of her films. In The
Legend of Speed her character's brother is killed off mainly so Cheung
can have another fabulous sob.
Twelve Nights is a defter, more contemplative movie (writer-director Aubrey
Lam was aiming for Ingmar Bergman's domestic epic Scenes from a Marriage)
but still gives Cheung ample reason and opportunity to get teary. Jeannie's
new boyfriend, played with a pouty self-absorption by Eason Chan Yik-shun,
enjoys teasing her about her eyebrows ("too big"), her cheeks ("big like
a blowfish") and her legs ("too fat")-when he isn't staying late at the
office to stare at his computer. Disguised as a romance, this is really
a movie about the inequality of love: the one who feels more gets hurt
harder. Cheung manages to make a pretty spectacle of losing in love: an
intelligent woman whose heart has made a stupid choice. ("Cecilia's a
lot like the character she plays," Lam says.
"She's very smart. She could play the way I wanted exactly and instantly.")
Soon, of course, she is crying often, persuasively and vigorously-so hard
that at one point her nose runs!
"People love to watch her cry," says Peter Chan. Cecilia loves it too.
She has watched Polaris "more than 10 times and cried every time. Can't
stop. It's very sad." In her favorite scene, the ghostly Ren "reads" her
a diary (the pages are blank; he is telling her what he remembers) of
the happy times they spent together. "I have to cry. And I didn't fake
it. I always want everything to be completely natural. But now it's harder
to cry. I'm under so much pressure. I've had so many difficult things
to put up with."
To be the It Girl is to be a commodity, a "story," a magnet for rumor
and recrimination in the Hong Kong press. You can't open a local paper
without reading reports of Cheung's breakup with her manager, or a tryst
with actor Daniel Chan. And Cheung can't open her front door without finding
the condors perched outside.
"They have to work," she said recently of the reporters and paparazzi.
"But they've made my life difficult. They write what they like, and the
truth doesn't matter. I hate them, but I have to ignore what they say
when they try to push me down. If you push yourself down with them, you
want to kill yourself. They follow me every day-there are always three
or four cars outside my house. I've moved five times in the past year;
I'm living in a hotel now. I'll have to move again soon. They can chase
me, but they won't get me."
Cheung has moved again: to Beijing, where she is filming Tsui Hark's remake
of his 1983 stunner Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain. She will keep
busy, at that whirlwind tempo that Hong Kong stars set for themselves,
for as long as movie producers and music moguls think she still has It.
She may have the staying power of a Maggie Cheung or a Michelle Yeoh,
both also-rans in earlier Best New Performer races. Or she could join
Polly Chan, Wu Hsing-kuo and Eric Moo in the ranks of promisers who never
quite delivered. We'll bet on the former.
"I think I'll be in show business until I'm 28 or 29," she says, "and
then get married when I'm 30. That's what the fortune teller told me."
But could any seer or screenwriter have dreamed up the amazing melodrama
that Cecilia Cheung has lived so far?
Reported by Stephen Short/Hong Kong
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