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Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2003

Cheung is the chosen one

In Zhang Yimou's search for a lead actress for "Hero," Maggie Cheung must have been the obvious choice. With a career that spans both action and art flicks -- flashy roles like a cat-suited crime-fighter in "Heroic Trio," as well as deeper, more emotionally nuanced performances such as the silent-movie star she plays in "Actress" -- she fit the bill perfectly for Zhang's needs. On top of that, the success of 2000's "In the Mood for Love" left Cheung -- and costar Tony Leung -- as two of Asia's most internationally recognized stars.

News photo
Maggie Cheung charms the press at the Shinjuku Park Hyatte Hotel in Tokyo.

In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times, Cheung was asked what it was like to play Leung's lover again in "Hero," so soon after "In the Mood."

"Actually, it's quite a challenge. You're playing opposite the same person, but creating a new chemistry," explained Cheung. "If we could do 10 more films together, and in each film be different, that is more interesting to me than doing it with someone different every time."

Cheung's career has largely been focused on Hong Kong, but "Hero" offered her the chance to work with one of the mainland's most respected directors, in what would be -- at $31 million -- the most expensive film ever made in China. When asked if she was excited to work with Zhang, Cheung admitted she didn't know what to expect: "I'd seen a lot of Zhang's films, and of course I'd seen his photos in the paper, and based on that, I kind of imagined what he'd be like; I thought he'd be very strong-willed, particular about the details. And when I finally arrived on set to work with him, it turned out that, after all, I was right! (Laughs.) But, in a way, that gives you a real sense of security. That is to say, he knows exactly what he's looking for in a scene, and he'll keep at it until he gets it.

"That's quite a big difference, from, say, Wong Kar-Wai. Wong's attitude toward his cast and crew is more like, what can we give him, what can we bring to the film? He'll sort through our ideas, and then choose the ones that appeal to him. That's his style."

This posed the obvious question: Which approach works better for her, the improvisatory freedom of Wong or the fixed direction of Zhang?

"I've done a lot of films with Wong, so I've really gotten used to his style. But, to be honest, Wong's style isn't really normal, I think! (Laughs.) So I think sometimes it's good for me to work on other directors' films. If I don't do that, I think I'd gradually lose touch with what it means to 'shoot a film,' in the traditional sense of the term. But with Wong's films and his cast and crew, we're like a family now, so I go off and work with other people, but always return to this family.

"Another thing, if you can get used to Wong's style, then you'll find that you have a lot more room to perform, a lot of range. In Wong's films, I feel like a lot of personal things, a lot of myself, comes out on the screen. But on the other hand, Zhang will request quite specific, technique-based performances. For an actor with a lot of experience, Zhang will say 'this is what I want,' and if you understand and give him exactly that, it's no problem. So they're quite different directors."

The 39-year-old Cheung is often referred to by the press as the "most admired woman in China." Admired for her beauty, perhaps, but Cheung is no diva when it comes to maintaining a celebrity facade. "You know, if I get a zit on the day of a photo shoot, so what? That's life. You can't worry about stuff like that." Indeed, Cheung's handlers in Japan were more concerned than she was with making sure she was properly dressed and coiffed. Not like the time she showed up for the "In the Mood" press conference in a pink sweatshirt from Harajuku that said "Sexpert" on the front. Of course, that only made some of us love her all the more . . .

Rather than her looks, Cheung supposes that her popularity is because "maybe people see me as an independent woman. I've been doing my own thing since I was 17 or 18, making my own career." Certainly true for a women who -- at the height of her success -- took a year off to go backpacking and didn't marry till age 35. (And has since divorced.) Cheung continued: "For Chinese women, compared to women in the West, they're still lagging behind in this regard. In the West, for a few decades now, women can have a job and get by without depending on anyone. If you don't want to get married or have kids, you can do that nowadays. So you could say I'm a woman who's breaking down traditional gender roles in China."

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