It’s no secret that MUBI—the site you are on right now—owes its existence partly to Maggie Cheung. In an oft-told story, its founder Efe Çakarel was killing time in a cafe in Tokyo in 2007 when he sensed that he was in the mood for Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. Finding that there was no way to stream that movie right there and then, he resolved to start his own global arthouse movie streaming service, and thus MUBI, or The Auteurs as it was initially known, was born. Now I’m not saying that Maggie Cheung herself was the main reason Efe wanted to watch In the Mood for Love, but she is such a major part of the allure of that film that I am giving her the credit, especially on the eve of Maggie Cheung: Center Stage, the Metrograph’s 20-film retrospective—all in 35mm no less—running from December 8-21.
Between 1984 and 1994 Maggie Cheung appeared in nearly 70 films in Hong Kong, first in romantic comedies and then in action movies like Jackie Chan’s Police Story (1985), Johnny To’s The Heroic Trio (1992) and Tsui Hark’s Green Snake (1993). Though she had prominent roles in Wong Kar-wai’s first two films As Tears Go By (1988) and Days of Being Wild (1990), it wasn’t until her indelible performance in Stanley Kwan’s 1992 Center Stage that she started to be taken very seriously as an actress.
But it was when Olivier Assayas, a longtime fan of Hong Kong cinema, hired her to play a Chinese actress adrift in Paris in Irma Vep in 1996 that she became well-known in the West. I was working for Zeitgeist Films when we released Irma Vep; I got to design the US poster for the film and was lucky enough to meet Maggie a couple of times, first at the Rotterdam Film Festival and then in New York when she came for the premiere. I have rarely been more starstruck.
Between 1996 and 2004, from Irma Vep to Clean—the two films she made with her future and then ex-husband Assayas—she made only 9 films, including In the Mood for Love. For Clean she won the Best Actress prize at Cannes, becoming the first Asian actress to do so. And then—in true movie diva style—she all but retired. There were rumors of a deleted scene in Inglorious Basterds in 2009, and she graced Isaac Julien’s museum installation Ten Thousand Waves in 2010, but to all extents and purposes she seems to have quit at the top of her game.
To see Maggie Cheung’s career in movie posters is to see her morph from a fresh-faced teenager to cheeky team player to kick-ass action hero to one of the most glamorous movie stars in the world. Who wouldn’t want to start a company to be able to watch her?
Posters courtesy of Heritage Auctions, Posteritati, CineMaterial and KinoArt.net. Maggie Cheung: Center Stage runs at The Metrograph from December 8-21.