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Why isn't Maggie Cheung a Hollywood star?
By SUSAN DOMINUS (New York Times)
Updated: 2004-11-16 14:52

Having spent the greater part of the day indoors, giving back-to-back interviews about her latest film, "Clean," at the Toronto International Film Festival, the actress Maggie Cheung exited the InterContinental Hotel to meet a spectacularly sunny early fall afternoon.

Jean-Baptiste Mondino for The New York Times
As she strode through the doorway, she ran into a friend from a film shoot, and Cheung, possibly the most famous woman in China, chatted gaily in Cantonese with her colleague, casually standing on the sidewalk as if no one would notice.

Close to a minute ticked by before one of the photographers lingering outside the hotel spotted her, possibly because Cheung was wearing Gucci sunglasses so large they were more like small, reflective plates perched on her fine face.

Once one photographer was up and snapping there were suddenly 2, then 4, then 16, until a swirling cloud of microphones and flashbulbs formed around her, gathering as if by some centripetal force, sucking in ever growing numbers of fans and quote seekers and photo snappers, most of them Asian cineastes in town for the festival.

Cheung, accustomed to such crowds, is also accustomed to having people materialize to help her through them, and a young Canadian woman working in public affairs for the festival took Cheung's arm uncertainly.

Jean-Baptiste Mondino for The New York Times
Someone hailed a taxi, and Cheung made her way toward it, laughing lightly as she turned to wave goodbye to her friend. She didn't look as if she'd just escaped a claustrophobic clutch; she looked amused and a bit embarrassed, as if she'd just dashed through a funny little rain shower without an umbrella.

The barometer of public reception, for Cheung, is always uncertain in North America. In Hong Kong, where she has been a star since placing first runner-up in the 1983 Miss Hong Kong pageant at age 18.

Cheung, now 40, once holed up in her apartment for three straight weeks to avoid the throng of photographers and reporters outside.

In New York and Los Angeles, on the other hand, she is rarely approached even for an autograph, unless it's from an Asian tourist lucky enough to catch her on the street.

She is also barely a recognizable face in Canada, which may explain why she allowed herself the luxury of some spontaneous streetside conversation, forgetting that a film festival subverts the normal laws governing her fame in this part of the world.

Cheung has been a fixture of Asian superstardom for 21 years and has won more acting awards in China than any other woman. She started out as Jackie Chan's long-suffering, slapsticky girlfriend, May, in the goofy action-oriented "Police Story" movies. (Chan said that when he first saw Cheung on Hong Kong TV, she struck him as someone who "wouldn't mind me kicking her down a flight of stairs.")

Eventually tiring, as much physically as creatively, of action films, by the late 80's she had started working with the dreamy, painterly filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, trading her role as a plucky comic for more nuanced parts in films like "As Tears Go By" and "In the Mood for Love" -- women with a noirish unattainability or ingenues shedding their innocence.

In the mid 90's, she crossed over to select Western audiences for the first time, working with the French director Olivier Assayas, whom she would eventually marry and who directed her recently in "Clean," the film for which she won the best actress award at Cannes. For Cheung's Asian audiences, it's as if they've watched her morph over the years from Audrey Hepburn to Greta Garbo.

So why is it that American audiences know Cheung only vaguely, if at all, as the woman who fended off a torrent of arrows in the Chinese film "Hero," which was a sleeper success in the United States this summer? It's somewhat mystifying that one of Asia's finest actresses is virtually unknown to Hollywood audiences, as if celebrity were the one export too fragile to make the 7,000-mile trip across the Pacific. Cheung's English, though accented, is fluent; her beauty, universal; her talent, unarguable -- the imprimatur of Cannes confirmed the cross-cultural appeal her Chinese fans have appreciated for decades. To wonder why Cheung isn't a Hollywood star is to wonder a bigger question: why hasn't any contemporary Asian actress become a major Hollywood star?

sitting comfortably in the lobby of the boutique hotel where she was staying in Toronto, Cheung, still wearing her sunglasses, didn't initially seem to find the question particularly compelling. "I haven't really bothered to explore it, but maybe it's normal," she said. "If you were making a Hong Kong film, what would you expect to do with Robert De Niro? He can play an American living in Hong Kong, but after that. . . . " She lighted a cigarette, then thought for a moment. "Then again, now there are so many Asians living abroad, it shouldn't really make a difference."

In "Clean," set mostly in Paris, Cheung plays a drug addict who is trying to recover so she can get her son back from the parents of the boy's father, who died of a drug overdose. The character, which Assayas, now her ex-husband, wrote specifically for Cheung, happens to be Chinese, but that's a minor aspect of her character, not the pivotal point of the plot: it's not a film about immigration or interracial relationships or cultural misunderstanding. In France, the film was widely distributed and hit No. 2 at the box office in Paris. Cheung's image appeared on the cover of every major French magazine, from Le Figaro's weekly supplement to the downtown Les Inrockuptibles. "Ten years ago, I think audiences might have thought, What do I care about this Chinese woman?" Cheung said. "In Europe, we're about halfway there. But I think maybe American audiences still think that."
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