On the award-winning actress' 58th birthday, Tatler revisits some of her best loved classics—from her collaborations with Wong Kar-wai and Tony Leung, to playing a vampire in a sci-fi

How many Maggie Cheung films can you name? Probably not all of them—there are too many.

Since her career kicked off when she came in second at the 1983 Miss Hong Kong Pageant, the Hong Kong actress has made around 80 films. The talented former beauty queen rose to stardom in the late 1980s and has played a wide range of roles onscreen throughout her career, including a vampire, a silent film star, the Green Snake in the Chinese legend, an innocent lover, a drug addict and much more.

Like her fellow A-lister Anita Mui, Cheung’s contribution to the film industry has fundamentally changed the way the world sees Hong Kong cinema, which was epitomised by Kungfu films or crime thrillers before the 1980s. Her talent has earnt her a number of prestigious awards, including Best Actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards, Cannes Film Festival and Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Here are five memorable and influential films starring Cheung you don't want to miss.

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1. As Tears Go By (1988)

This 1988 crime drama was legendary Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-Wai’s directorial debut, and one of Cheung’s first few collaborations with Wong. This work marked the beginning of Cheung’s more dramatic acting career four years after her film debut in comedy Prince Charming (1984).

Inspired by Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, the film stars actor Andy Lau and singer Jacky Cheung Hok-yau as key members of a triad in the city, and Cheung as the innocent cousin and romantic interest of Lau’s character. This film led to Cheung being nominated for Best Actress at the 1988 Hong Kong Film Awards.

2. Days of Being Wild (1990)

Cheung joined an A-list cast that included Leslie Cheung, Carina Lau, Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung in this 1990 Wong Kar-wai film that follows the story of Yuddy, a spoilt playboy (Leslie Cheung) who, suffocated by his controlling foster mother, searches for his birth mother.

Maggie Cheung was cast as female lead Su Li-zhen, a young tuck shopkeeper who is captivated by Yuddy’s charm, only to get heartbroken when she finds out he is a fickle lover.

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3. In the Mood for Love (2000)

Named by the BBC in 2016 as the second best movie of the 21st century, this 2000 romantic drama follows the story of Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Mrs Chan (Cheung), neighbours who both suspect their respective spouses of being unfaithful and ponder the possibility of an affair of their own but never go through with it.

The highly stylised film—with Christopher Doyle as cinematographer and William Chang as costume designer and one of the producers—has little and often repeated dialogue and score. Both Cheung and Leung deliver convincing and captivating performances that convey the fragility, desire and restraint of their characters.

Cheung swept up the Best Actress awards at both the 2000 Golden Horse Film Awards and 2001 Hong Kong Film Awards for her work in In the Mood for Love, and the film has gained fame locally and abroad for its aestheticised and avant-garde portrayal of desire.

4. Irma Vep (1996)

Helmed by French director Olivier Assayas, who was Cheung’s husband from 1998 to 2001, this 1996 French satire sees Cheung play a fictional version of herself (in that iconic skin-tight catsuit) working on a remake of Louis Feuillade’s silent film serial Les Vampires (1915-1916) with a René Vidal, a French film director played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. When the production goes downhill, Cheung steals jewellery from a hotel and everything goes awry. 

Irma Vep was celebrated for its bold commentary on French cinema at the time, as well as for the way it played with the concept of hallucinations.

2022 sees a new HBO series of the same name, written and directed by Assayas, which is a remake of the 1996 film. This remake stars Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten RingsFala Chen, who told the South China Morning Post her career “has many parallels with that of Maggie Cheung”. And Assayas said to Vanity Fair about this new production that he “became a character in my own [show] and my relationship with Maggie became part of the narrative. I was reproducing the conversation I never had with her that I would have loved to have, somehow.”

Read more: Fala Chen on New HBO Series ‘Irma Vep’, Asian Representation on Screen, and What’s Next for Her

5. Clean (2004)

Assayas and Cheung work together again in Clean (2004), in which Cheung plays Emily, a drug addict and video jockey who has to get clean to regain custody of her son. The film earnt her a Best Actress award at Cannes, after which Cheung retired from cinema and walked away from the height of her career.

In 2010, Cheung appeared in Wing Shya and Fruit Chan’s rom-com, Hot Summer Days, but only in a supporting role.


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