Hong Kong was the first kiss in my eventual, and undying, romance with all cinemas Asian. I call it a romance because that’s precisely what it is, a love affair. And because, well, there are women involved. I’m talking about movie star women, of course, opulent peacocks, dream girls on parade. My first movie star crush was Nora Miao, whom I’ve only seen in the Bruce Lee film Return of the Dragon and nowhere else. I should’ve known that was the start of something. Much later, there was Joey Wong and Shu Qui and Zhao Wei and Karen Mok and Gigi Leung and Miriam Yeung and Jo Kuk and Kelly Chen. There was Sammi Cheng bustling through the Johnnie To/Wai Kai Fai office rom-com Needing You. And Cecilia Cheung grieving her way back to love in Derek Yee’s tearjerky Lost In Time. Some of them were ghosts, as all women you love eventually become. Some of them could take me in a fight. Some of them melt you with a gaze. And some of them flew.
Brigitte Lin did a lot of transgender flying, and fighting, in Tsui Hark’s hectic and wondrous 1986 wu xia inversion Peking Opera Blues. When Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon emerged in 2000, it all but brokered the mainstreaming of wu xia cinema outside of Asia and the cinephile fringes, but you only thought hoary old paradigms of the Asian leading lady shifted in its wake. That was really nothing more than the flex and fallout of American hegemony. Brigitte, and really, Michelle Yeoh, among many others, had, at this point, been doing it for years. Ang Lee himself was merely riffing off King Hu’s 1966 masterpiece Come Drink With Me, going as far as casting its feisty leading lady Chang Pei-Pei as Jade Fox. China, and HK, and really Japan and South Korea and the Philippines, have long-standing traditions when it came to the prominence of their leading ladies, a lot of their films tend to be centered by women as a result. Peking Opera Blues had no less than three.
Before she retired, in a canny bit of stunt casting, Brigitte Lin gleefully subverted her own image as HK showbiz royalty, by putting on a trashy blonde wig and an even trashier raincoat straight out of John Cassavetes’ Gloria for Wong Kar Wai. It was an iconic last bow. But Chungking Express, if you press me to a corner, was all about Faye Wong, whose character, also named Faye and arguably the prototype for Sinitta Boonyasak’s Noy and Apinya Sakujaroensuk’s Ploy in Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life In The Universe and Ploy, respectively, as well as Jun Ji Hyun’s nameless girl in Jae-young Kwak’s My Sassy Girl, was every bit the Manic Pixie Dream Girl before Hollywood coined the term and claimed it for their own. Only none of them had the self-aware affectation that makes it such a grating trope. Faye, hair shorn to that of a boy and making pink gloves sexy as she sneaks into heartbroken cop Tony Leung’s apartment and stealthily insinuates herself in the minutiae of his life before turning it on its head, was, aside from being almost intolerably cute, effortless and unfussy and fresh.
You could tease a meta throb from the casting of Brigitte Lin and Faye Wong as two halves of a diptych, a sense of a torch being passed perhaps, with Brigitte being the last of her generation of leading ladies and Faye being the first of hers. When Joseph Campbell said the condition of a movie star is also the condition of a deity, he was mostly talking about Hollywood movie stars and how they can exist in several places at once, that is, on the screen and in real life. But he was also talking about this heightened, almost otherworldly, glamour you associate with them, how they were larger than life abstracts. Asian movie stars were, by refreshing contrast, life-sized. I’m not just talking about Faye here, of course, or for that matter, Hong Kong, but also of Japan’s Chiyaki Kuriyama and Taiwan’s Chieng Shiang Chyi and Korea’s Lee Young Ae and Yunjin Kim and our own Angeli Bayani and Alessandra De Rossi. These are women with presence, stars with wattage, but with a girl next door vulnerability and naturalism.
Even Gong Li and Maggie Cheung had this earthy quality. These two, were, for a time, the Western embodiment of the Asian leading lady. Gong Li’s work with Zhang Ymou and Chen Kaige were world cinema game-changers. And Maggie Cheung had her own formidable arthouse cachet with Stanley Kwan’s Actress, Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost A Love Story and, more prominently, Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood for Love. Despite the profile and the overtures, Maggie never succumbed to the Hollywood cross-over that all but dismantles the careers of Asian filmmakers and actors, with the possible exception of Ang Lee. She did make one Hollywood art film with Gong, Wayne Wang’s middling Chinese Box, but that was as far as she got. Gong Li, too, had said no to Michael Mann the first time. She said no, in fact, to Heat, because she didn’t want to be a prop, which may come off a little harsh, except she totally would’ve been one. She did eventually say yes, to Mann’s reboot of his own Miami Vice, and to a part that was more fulsome, had more consequence. The film was thoroughly excellent if sadly misunderstood, but her dalliance with the refurbished Crockett and Tubbs was unnecessary. The only thing it proved, apart from the impeccable taste Mann has in actresses, was that she didn’t need Hollywood. None of them ever did.
1. Faye Wong : I’m biased. And tremendously so. Chungking Express happens to be my favorite film. Of all time. Oh, but Faye is so puckish and adorable here as to be almost indelible. She was last seen in 2046 and has since focused more on her music than on films, realizing perhaps that she can never outshine this with any other film role. Even one that’s directed by Wong Kar Wai.
2. Sammi Cheng : Sammi’s acumen for screwball makes her a shoo-in for rom-coms. That’s her winning streak, all those Johnnie To comedies, of which Love On A Diet, where she acted through a fat suit, was the funniest, and Romancing In Thin Air, from just a couple of years ago, the most sublime.
3. Angeli Bayani and 4. Alessandra De Rossi : The only time they were together was in Ka Oryang playing embattled activists. But they’ve cut their own respective swaths through domestic independent cinema on their own, not to mention laid claim to serious Cannes pedigrees: Alessandra, significantly, in Raya Martin’s Independencia and Auraeus Solito’s Busong, and Angeli, as a semi-regular member of Lav Diaz’s rotating ensemble last seen at the center of his exuberantly-praised Cannes film Norte.
5. Cecilia Cheung : For my money, HK cinema’s prettiest face. That she has the acting chops, too, seals it. Her work in the Korean drama Failan was her calling card to the world. But I’m a huger fan of her heartbroken single mother in Lost in Time.
6. Chen Shiang Chyi : Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl flies to Paris. Boy starts changing all the clocks in Taiwan to Paris time. What Time Is It There? is another lifelong favorite. Which is to say I’m tremendously biased here, too. But she’s only been in nearly every film by Tsai Ming Liang, and one with Edward Yang. Tough to argue with credentials like that.
7. Jun Jy Hyun: Last time we see her was part of the massive all-star ensemble of The Thieves but sometimes all it takes is one iconic role to seal your fate. She had two: My Sassy Girl and Il Mare, classics of modern Korean cinema made more essential by the dreadful American remakes.
8. Chiyaki Kuriyama : As Go Go Yibari, she was Kill Bill's entire surfeit of cool. But you’re really better off going to Sion Sono’s Exte Hair Extensions, Takashi Miike's The Great Yokai War and Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale.
9 .Maggie Cheung and 10. Gong Li : Before she wore all those opulent cheongsams in In The Mood For Love, I succumbed to Maggie Cheung when she walked on the rooftops of Paris dressed as the cat burglar Irma Vep. And much as Zhang Ymou had a hand in it, Gong Li converted me to Chinese period drama as the longsuffering wife in To Live. A little predictable to name-check them, perhaps, but ultimately foolish to omit.
*Originally published in Vault