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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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Reviewed by Chris Khoo

Director: Olivier Assayas
Writing Credits: Olivier Assayas, Malachy Martin, Sarah Perry
Starring: Maggie Cheung, Nick Nolte, James Johnston
Genre: Drama
Country: Canada, France
Language: French, English, Cantonese
Year released: 2004
Runtime: 110 min
Rating: ***½ (out of four stars)

"If there is one overriding idea for this film, it comes from the desire to show that change is possible, that one can become a new person, and that we are not forever chained to our past." - Olivier Assayas

Aspiring singer, Emily Wang (Maggie Cheung) has a roll with her musician husband, Lee Hauser (James Johnston, who plays with Nick Cave) and this ultimate angst would tear Emily’s world apart. Emily shoots up in a car parked in front of a metallic backdrop of some Canadian industrial estate, but when she returns to the hotel in the morning, a rigid Lee lies on the floor. He too escapes into ‘La La land’ during the previous night but unfortunately, an overdose locks him out from the real world. This leads to Emily’s incrimination and she serves six months in jail for possession of heroin. She leaves her son to the care of Lee’s parents, subsequently losing her custody.

Emily comes out of prison, stranded on a bus stop under a clear, bleak winter sky – she is only at the first stop of her wilderness phase. We follow Emily’s emotional journey through a desolate world where only her faith would generate enough warmth for survival. The only person who eventually believes in her is her father-in-law (exquisitely supported by Nick Nolte).

Olivier Assayas directed an intensely honest film about forgiveness and change with sense. This is not the usual drug addict film about the protagonist’s cold turkey sessions where mucus floods the face and tears choke the voice in overt lachrymose tones. Rather, he expounds on the price to pay on the struggling journey to a personal recovery. Not only did Emily lost her husband and her rights to her son, but she almost lost hope – the only reason for her existence. Friends cruelly exit Emily’s life and her mother-in-law condemns her as a murderer although that was never the truth.

Olivier convicts us to be interested in Emily’s character and allows us to witness the molding process which gives birth to a new person. From Emily’s first fall to her first reunion with her son, Olivier treats these moments in unpretentious manners and he succeeds in evening the ominous tone of the film with precision and timing. The bunch of real life indie rock musicians (Emily Haines and Tricky) is also an extra bonus. It creates a raw documentary undercurrent to the film. This is also further complemented with a haunting and sympathetic theme music that becomes Emily's theme.

The role of Emily was especially written for Maggie Cheung and her arresting performance places her as a powerful auteur of the story. Maggie Cheung grew up in England and spends her adulthood in Hong Kong/Paris. This cosmopolitan upbringing allows her to enhance Emily’s character with values of self respect and determination that are fused through an Asian fashion where only her established star persona could fabricate. Drug addict roles there are aplenty but Emily is a rare commodity and Maggie fits the role with zilch vacuum. Olivier establishes several clever shots, creating deep meanings in Maggie’s performance that must emanate from her place in the film’s narrative. With additional creative inputs from Maggie herself, she becomes a unique author of the film. This is Maggie's second collaboration with Olivier Assayas since their divorce. The first one was eight years ago on Irma Vep. There is profound maturity in Maggie Cheung's acting. With subtlety, restraint and seriousness to the subject matter, Maggie delivers a tour de force performance. Cannes is not enough, and an Oscar is not an overstatement. This would be Maggie's second international award since her Berlin silver bear win in 1992 for The Actress. Clean is the pinnacle of Maggie Cheung’s prolific acting career.

Bleak and gloomy as the film is, Olivier never forgets the hope that we harbour along with Emily. It is not aimed at pacifying us, the audience, but rather emphasizing the importance and purpose of Emily’s struggle. It certainly did not go in vain and as Emily nears the end of her wilderness, she finally secures a demo recording session and sings with raw emotions. Maggie's final expression of relief, gratitude, joy, love and a sense of being cleansed is... Priceless.

Cannes Film Festival 2004 winner – Prix d'interprétation feminine: Maggie Cheung.