She 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 movies
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.
Fly 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 very close.
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.
King 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.
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