Friday, February 20, 2009

Telephone 601 (Or The Rise and Fall of Cecilia Cheung) -- MAJOR UPDATE

I've been thinking for weeks of what made Cecilia Cheung so special in my mind.

And, after watching the Mainland film, Telephone 601, I am now feeling a bit sorry for her.

Back in very early 2001 -- right after Christmas, 2000 -- I dove into Hong Kong cinema with determination. I had just seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and had just bought my first DVD player. I immediately realized that that film owed a lot to earlier -- some would say better -- films. So, now that I had a DVD player, I could easily investigate all those old Tsui Hark films I had seen clips of and read about.

In the process of doing that, I started to branch out into non-action, non-wuxia genres and the first actress currently working at that time who really caught my eye was Cecilia Cheung.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that she's not even one of the most beautiful Hong Kong actresses as far as I'm concerned; Christy Chung, Cherie Chung, and Maggie Cheung are all more attractive to me when judged purely on looks -- I'm a man so I can't help being shallow but at least I'm honest about it.

(And, yes, I do agree with Yvonne and others who have found her too thin at times.)

But Cecilia had a presence that went beyond just looks. She may not have been quite the actress that Maggie Cheung is but, like Maggie, she did manage to bring her personality into her roles and that counts for a lot with me.

And my nostalgia for when I first became a fan of Cecilia is also a tribute to all of the websites that helped me further that craze in 2001 and 2002: Sanney's old Hong Kong Entertainment News in Review; The View from The Brooklyn Bridge where I first read reviews from Brian and Yvonne; and, Kozo's site, of course;

In fact, this old sponsor page from Kozo's site provides a little web evidence of my fan-love of Cecilia from probably 2002 or 2003.

Which is a long introduction to try to figure out why I liked Cecilia so much.

I use the past tense because her career seems to be effectively over. It seems that Cecilia had her share of press issues before the Edison Chen scandal and that incident only made things worse. She needed to retire from the limelight, raise her son, and, hopefully, is planning a return for some time in the future.

I think the first film I noticed her in was the pretty bad Tokyo Raiders. Cecilia is wasted in the film, frankly -- hell, the whole cast is wasted in the film -- but, in 2001, it was easily available on a good, legal DVD and it had a lot of stars in it whose names I had heard of.

And it's worth noting that the majority of real Hong Kong fans probably first noticed Cecilia in Stephen Chow's excellent King of Comedy from 1999.

But I think the moment that she went from just being a spunky character actress to a real actress came with Failan; she is just ridiculously good in this film in a role that would be easy to screw up -- a Zhao Wei or Shu Qi would alternately be too cute or too sexy for this part; Cecilia strikes the right notes of vulnerability and determination in this film. I defy any film fan not to cry like a baby while watching the end of this flick.

And to think that this was a few years before the majority of us saw Choi Min-Sik in Oldboy!

The song is by Karen Mok but the MV features scenes from the film with Cecilia.

Looking at her filmography, I confess to having seen every film on that list with the exception of Master Q and Himalaya Singh.

Having said that, I can recall a little something delightful about her performances in each and quite a bit of variety as well; Kelly Chen can -- barely -- do modern romances and that's me being generous. Cecilia has done those (Everyday is Valentine), comedies (Help!!!; King of Comedy, Mighty Baby), dramas (Lost in Time, Failan, One Nite in Mongkok), period films both semi-serious (Legend of Zu, The Promise) and silly (The White Dragon, The Lion Roars, Cat and Mouse), as well as films that defy easy categorization (Running on Karma, Second Time Around).

Seriously, what other Hong Kong actress of the past decade could be so good in films as different as Twelve Nights and The White Dragon and Lost in Time and Wu Yen and Mighty Baby?

I was going to talk about how even Cecilia's husky voice is a great acting tool -- how it sometimes reminds me of Demi Moore but that's an insult; Cecilia's career is more interesting and more varied than Demi's was ever going to be. Bruce Willis' ex was a humourless robot in every film she starred in next to Cecilia's persona even in something as silly and lightweight as her cameo in Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer.

Which finally brings me to her last film to date, the woeful Mainland film, Telephone 601 (2006). In a role that eerily both echoes Cecilia's past mishaps with the press and foreshadows the fallout from the Edison Chen scandal, Cecilia plays a pop singer, Tianyou, in modern Shanghai whose cellphone number gets switched with a dour and seemingly doomed office worker Yishu. Yishu pines for Xiaowen who is a handsome punk rocker (though the music is more like the Backstreet Boys) dying of cancer as he writes his final song that he dreams to give to Tianyou to perform.

And I'm probably not ruining anything by telling you that she sings it in a tearful finale. The film is crap and, in the States, it would be in the bargain bin at Blockbuster or straight-to-cable to show up on Showtime in the middle of the night.

I think maybe I was pissed off seeing Hu Ge after enduring his sub-Ekin Cheng acting in The Butterfly Lovers? It goes without saying that he plays the dying, cancer victim/punk rocker.

This fan didn't enjoy the scenes of Cecilia's character preparing to plunge to her death from a balcony as her label bosses watched from a far; it was just too creepy to imagine the kind of crap that happened in real life after the Edison story broke.

There's not much here for me to recommend; I watched the film as a Cecilia completist as I was too scared to open Himalaya Singh. It's as simple as that.

Even the simple pleasure of seeing Cecilia have a great crying scene -- she's a great on-screen crier on par with Gong Li -- was denied me as the insipid, predictable ending meant that I had to sit through this cancer guy's song -- again!

The picture quality was horrible as well. Should I go on? I am just thankful that I found the legal DVD for less than $10 in a local Chinese video store.

You can order the Hong Kong DVD here.

It is dubbed into Cantonese and I am pretty sure that Cecilia's voice is dubbed on both the Mandarin and Cantonese language tracks on the DVD.

So, in the end, there are quite a few of us -- Jason would probably chime in with me now -- who really miss Cecilia and want her to return to film.

Hopefully someone like Hou Hsiao-Hsien or a director of a similar mindset would one day attempt to give Cecilia another chance.

Here's hoping he watches her in Failan first and not Para Para Sakura!

MAJOR UPDATE: In what seems like a moment from one of her films -- the scene where Cecilia starts to choke up, her voice going all raspy, as she speaks up for herself -- Cecilia Cheung gave an interview on the Edison Chen sex scandal on a TV program last night, February 28, 2009! Crienglish has the details

My favorite quote from the article is this paragraph:

"A report in said Cheung showed sincere regret for her actions during the program and placed all the blame on herself. But she also criticized actor Chen, claiming he shed crocodile tears when he testified in a Canadian court last Monday for his involvement in the scandal."

She even hinted at a return to acting if she was presented a decent script!

And even if this TV interview was the equivalent of a Barbara Walters interview, or merely some kind of public penance to get the scandal over with already, I'm happy because it means that Cecilia is going to be back eventually. Good for her, good for her fans!