As one of Hong Kong’s most respected and well-liked actresses, Maggie Cheung has thrived on versatility. In the last twenty years, Cheung has appeared in over seventy movies to date, playing everything from an action hero, a comedienne, a damsel in distress, and in one film, herself. Despite numerous awards and widespread recognition in her native land, success overseas, particularly in America, has eluded the talented actress. But with “Hero” (2002), Zhang Yimou’s epic historical fantasy, Cheung finally had the opportunity to be recognized by a foreign audience.
Cheung was born in Hong Kong on September 20, 1964. At eight years-old, she moved to England with her family, where Cheung remained until completing secondary school. Being the only Asian student, Cheung grew up feeling abnormal; she constantly changed her look, wearing different clothes and dying her hair to fit in. Her return to Hong Kong at eighteen created more feelings of alienation; she no longer understood her native tongue. Cheung began a modeling career, which led to television commercials, a first runner-up prize for Miss Hong Kong in 1983, and eventually a film career. She began appearing in such throw-away fair as “Prince Charming” (1984), directed by Wong Jing, “Happy Ghost 3” and “The Frog Prince”—an inauspicious start to a remarkable career.
In 1985, Cheung got her big break when she starred alongside Jackie Chan, already popular in Asia, and about to become an international star, in “Police Story” (1985). As Mai, the girlfriend to Chan’s cop hero Ka Kui, Cheung found herself trapped in the stereotypical damsel-in-distress role. Though her appearances in “Police Story” and its two sequels, “Police Story II” (1988) and “Supercop” (1992), advanced her acting career, Cheung was hampered by playing the bewildered and doting girlfriend who needs her cop boyfriend to rescue her from trouble.
Cheung’s talent, however, eventually burst through the seemingly non-stop dreck and surfaced in more dramatic roles. She appeared in Stanley Kwan’s “Full Moon in New York” (1989), for which she won the 1989 Taiwan Golden Horse Award for Best Actress. That same year, she made the first of four collaborations with acclaimed director Wong Kar Wai in “As Tears Go By” (1989). Cheung received more acclaim for “Song of the Exile” (1990), directed by Ann Hui, and “Days of Being Wild (1991), another Wong Kar Wai effort. In “A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon” (1990), Cheung returned to action, playing opposite Chow Yun-Fat in the second sequel to the ultra-hip classic originally directed by John Woo.
It was for her role in “The Actress” (1991) that Cheung earned several awards for Best Actress, including the Taiwan Golden Horse, the Hong Kong Film Award and the Silver Bear Award from the Berlin International Film Festival. In her second Stanley Kwan film, Cheung starred as 1930’s actress Ruan Ling-yu, once dubbed China’s Greta Garbo, who took her own life after being unable to cope with public accusations that she was having an affair with a married man. Cheung followed “The Actress” with two more martial arts comedies, both starring Jackie Chan: the forgettable “Twin Dragons” (1992) and “The Heroic Trio” (1992), a cartoonish feature that pits three heroic women, including Michelle Yeoh, against forces of evil bent on creating China’s new leader.
As her career progressed, Cheung began choosing her roles more carefully. Despite the popularity she received for her martial arts flicks—a celebrity that became troublesome because of an aggressive press—Cheung felt unchallenged. Her career took a decidedly dramatic turn in the mid-1990’s, though she would continue to appear selectively in martial arts movies. In “Ashes of Time” (1994), her third collaboration with Wong Kar Wai, Cheung played The Woman in a lyrical and mesmerizing epic that eschewed standard martial arts conventions to meditate upon the themes of memory and love. Cheung traveled to Paris for her next feature, “Irma Vep” (1996), directed by Olivier Assayas, whom she later married. She played herself in a role written by Assayas before the two had ever met. In the dark comedy about filmmaking, Cheung goes to Paris to appear in a remake the silent-era film, “Les Vampires” (1915). Forced to speak in broken English and defend a has-been director, Cheung immerses herself so fully in the role that she finds her life mimicking art. The film was a hit on the international film festival circuit, and reinforced Cheung’s onscreen prowess.
Cheung received more awards for “Comrades – Almost a Love Story” (1996): she won Best Actress at Taiwan’s 1997 Golden Horse Film Festival and the Hong Kong Film Awards. Cheung then appeared in “Chinese Box” (1997), starring Jeremy Irons and Gong Li. The Wayne Wang film toured the festival circuit, and received a rare American release for the actress. Cheung worked for a fourth time with Wong Kar Wai in “In the Mood for Love” (2001), a lush romantic drama considered to be one of Wong’s more mature efforts. Cheung won another Golden Horse award for Best Actress for her efforts.
She continued her winning streak with “Clean” (2004), for which she won Best Actress at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. And in “Hero”, released in the United States in 2004, Cheung returned to the martial arts genre in Zhang Yimou’s beautifully filmed and ambitiously directed period epic. After becoming one of Asia's highest grossing films in history, “Hero” also resonated with American audiences, taking in the top spot at the U.S. box office with over $18 million its first weekend. With that kind of exposure, Cheung had finally positioned herself to truly become an international star.