The Maggie Cheung We Don’t See

Curator's Note

Maggie Cheung is conspicuously absent from the cast of the HBO miniseries Irma Vep (2022), a remake of Olivier Assayas’s 1996 film of the same name. The earlier Irma Vep—Assayas’s breakout work—is ostensibly about the making of a film, following the narrative of a fading French director’s attempt at a radical reinterpretation of the silent serial Les Vampires (1915). But it is in truth an elaborate portrait of Cheung, who plays a version of herself—a Hong Kong star who comes to Paris to perform the role of the classically French heroine Irma Vep and, in the process, breathe new life into French cinema. On and off Irma Vep’s fictional film set, Assayas’s camera tracks Cheung through layers of mediation and translation, narrative and meta-narrative. There is Maggie as Irma Vep in René’s remake of Les Vampire; Maggie the semi-fictional character of Assayas’s film; Maggie the real global film icon; and Maggie the elusive figure “off-screen.”[1] If Cheung is the animating force of the 1996 Irma Vep, she is the vanishing point of the 2022 remake, our anchor to an uncharted world just beyond view, a tenuous link to an impossible space within and beyond cinema.

In an interview about the remake, Assayas explains that Cheung had refused to participate. The miniseries comes eighteen years after she stopped making films. Shortly after becoming the first Asian performer to win Best Actress at Cannes for her trilingual role in Clean (2004), and two decades into a singularly prismatic career that crisscrosses Hong Kong, France, mainland China, and the United States, Cheung disappeared from the silver screen.

 When Cheung does “appear” in the miniseries, it is in forms that accentuate her absence. In episodes three and four, Assayas inserts footage from the earlier film into the remake as pieces of memory or dream: shots of Cheung in the black latex suit as Irma Vep, prowling the halls and stairways of her hotel, gazing down into Paris from the roof on a rainy night. In one brief scene, Assayas superimposes the 1996 original over the 2022 remake, to show Maggie sneaking down the same hallway as Mira (Alicia Vikander), the latest Irma Vep, opening the present up into an alternative dimension, before the two temporal layers separate, with Maggie dashing down a divergent path that leads into a time and place beyond the here-and-now.

By functioning here as an off-screen world, a world away from the world we’re watching in 2022, the earlier film takes on a different status, transforming from a finished work into an opening onto the unknown. In the moments when Cheung suddenly fills the screen, we are startled by the possibility that this familiar figure, whose face, body, gestures, and expressions have lit up so many cinematic worlds, in fact remains an enigma to us, the true meaning of her enduring potency unresolved and unexplored. “You are not here,” the character René Vidal says to the apparition of his ex-wife Jade Lee, a stand-in for Cheung (Assayas’s own ex-wife), whose substitution renders her absence more vivid: “You’re not even in France. You are in Hong Kong or in London, or…or god knows where.”

The real Maggie Cheung eludes Assayas’s screen space, refusing to appear. But disappearance, refusal, defection—these can constitute their own kind of performance, an aesthetic strategy deployed by postcolonial and minoritarian subjects as peculiar, oblique, circuitous forms of agency.[2] Cheung’s literal absence in the 2022 Irma Vep fittingly conjures up the 1996 film’s central conflict: a curious failure of looking on the part of the French characters, who view Maggie through the prism of a fantasy image—a combination of the exotic Hong Kong action heroine and the hyper-sexualized Hollywood superhero of Catwoman. Under their gaze, Maggie disappears, a phenomenon emblematic of what Anne Anlin Cheng describes in Ornamentalism as the yellow woman figure’s tendency to be “so suffused with representation that she is invisible, so encrusted by aesthetic expectations that she need not be present to generate affect, and so well known that she has vanished from the zone of contact.”[3]

Cheung’s (anti-)performance in the miniseries can be understood as a continuation of her function in the 1996 film, as a figure oriented towards the off-screen, the outside of any imaginable diegesis. This is epitomized in the central nighttime hotel sequence from 1996, the first and only sequence in which Maggie operates on her own, away from René and the French crew, when she gives a kind of impossible “off-screen” performance, framed as something that can never emerge within the logic of René’s production. Not coincidentally, this is the primary sequence Assayas inserts into the 2022 remake, resulting in a vision of Cheung that is doubly off-screen.

By not being there, Cheung impresses more indelibly; her missing body becomes an opening, tantalizing with the possibility of unimagined modes of being and desiring elsewhere.

Who, where, in what world, is the Maggie Cheung we don’t see? How can we go there too?


[1] Throughout this text, I use “Maggie” to refer to Maggie Cheung as portrayed in Assayas’s film and “Cheung” to refer to Maggie Cheung in the real world, though the two at times overlap.

[2] See different iterations of this idea for example in Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and Politics of Disappearance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997; Anne Anlin Cheng, “Gleaming Things,” Ornamentalism: A Feminist Theory for the Yellow Woman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, 61–85; Mila Zuo, “Salty-Cool: Maggie Cheung and Joan Chen,” Vulgar Beauty: Acting Chinese in the Global Sensorium. Durham: Duke University Press, 2022, 73–112; Vivian Huang, Surface Relations: Queer Forms of Asian American Inscrutability, Durham: Duke University Press, 2022.

[3] Cheng, Ornamentalism, xi.

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