I couldn't tell you when the rest of the world fell in love with Maggie Cheung, but I suspect it happened when she started making movies for Wong Kar-Wai. There's something to be said for that, because Wong and Maggie Cheung are one of the great cinematic collaborations of the last quarter century. I'm not kidding about the "love" part when it comes to the world at large, either. French director Olivier Assayas fell so hard that he designed a movie specifically to court the actress, who he subsequently married. The marriage didn't work, and I probably could have told you that it wouldn't given that Assayas's image of Maggie Cheung involved a latex cat suit, but who knows what actually went on with that. Love can be funny sometimes.
As I say, I couldn't say when the rest of the world fell for Maggie Cheung, but I know exactly when I fell for her. It was a few minutes into Tsui Hark's Green Snake in 1993 (which I actually saw about two years after its release, but details). It was the snake dance scene at the beginning of the movie:
That's some seriously erotic filmmaking there. Queerly erotic, at that.
Green Snake is probably my favorite of Tsui Hark's fantasies, in the main because the erotic charge is so strong. That scene has Joey Wong in it too, who was already seducing audiences as the ghost girl in The Chinese Ghost Story movies.
Green Snake is a retelling of the legend of Bai Suzhen, Madame White Snake, a thousand-year-old snake spirit who takes human form in order to do good deeds so that she might become a goddess in her next incarnation. She falls in love with a scholar. Humans and spirits are forbidden to love each other. A couple of Buddhist monks intervene: one is clueless, the other is downright bigoted. This is a pretty well known Chinese fairy tale and there are at least five other film versions to go along with operas and novels. This one, however, takes a slightly different tack. This version focuses more than you would expect on Bai's companion, Green, a much younger snake spirit who hasn't quite grasped the subtleties of being human. A large part of Hark's movie concerns itself with Green's attempts to find her humanity. At first, this is kind of funny. It's fun watching Maggie Cheung, who plays Green, scrunch up her face trying to cry or laugh or express human emotions. The movie gives the actress a broad palette of emotions to attempt and she totally nails the awkwardness of forcing them. When she finally DOES experience real emotion at the end of the film, it's a devastating turn of events, and boy, howdy, does the movie know how to put its finger on the moment. It's as if the world comes to a stop--and this during one of the film's more action-intensive sequences. Hark knows the power of human faces and he drops all the sturm and drang to point the camera square at Maggie Cheung's eyes, which for all the special effects and production design is exactly where the film's drama is really taking place. It's a moment worthy of Von Sternberg during his most passionate infatuation with Marlene Dietrich.
By the time he made this movie, Tsui Hark had already spent over a decade remaking Hong Kong cinema in his own image. This film is so visually distinctive that you can hardly imagine another director signing their name to it. There's martial arts in this movie, but it's so abstracted and so languid that this doesn't really read as an action movie, per se. There are a lot of special effects, too. If you just look at the surface, you might conclude that Green Snake is concerned with style at the expense of all. But you would be wrong. There's a deep humanism in this film, and it exists at a curious intersection in Chinese history. This is one of those films made in the run-up to 1997 that expresses Hong Kong's version of millennial unease. The brutal repression of the protests at Tiananmen Square were fresh in everyone's mind, after all. Would the take-over of Hong Kong be similarly brutal and repressive? You can see some of this in the scene near the beginning of the movie where we first see our intolerant Buddhist master scouring the countryside for spirits who are getting too uppity. He doesn't care that the spider spirit he encounters has improved himself over such a long time, or that he is almost human. He puts him down without a thought. Buddhism in this film, is a stand in for the People's Republic. This becomes even more explicit later in the film when our young hero is taken to a temple that resembles nothing so much as a re-education camp. That had to resonate hard in a culture that was only one generation removed from the Cultural Revolution. Green Snake, then, is a cautionary tale about the exercise of power untempered by humanity.
But Tsui is also clever in his choice of symbols. He rigs his symbols such that he can claim that he is instead criticizing Buddhism and religion when called on it by future cultural apparatchiks, and given that censorship offices are often pig-headedly literal-minded about what they see, he would have been perfectly safe. It doesn't hurt that Green Snake really IS a critique of religion, in which it is seriously taken to task for valuing the next world over this world, and in which religion suppresses everyone's basic human needs in the name of spirituality. This gives the movie quite a kick, actually, over and above the erotic charge that runs through the entire film.
Speaking of which, this is one of my favorite erotic movies. I saw this at about the same time I first saw Sex and Zen, and given my druthers, I'd prefer to watch this movie to get me all hot and bothered. A comparison with Sex and Zen is instructive, too, because for all it's perversion and willingness to outrage, Sex and Zen is fundamentally sex-negative, while this film, without the overt kink, is totally sex-positive. Given a choice, I'll take sex-positive every day of the week.
Note: I've put a link to Tai Seng's DVD of Green Snake below, but I don't recommend it. I don't believe that the film has been remastered since it was on laserdisc, and it still features burned-in subtitles that occasionally vanish because of white on white issues. The version that is currently streaming on Netflix is about comparable, but the subtitles look to be new. Caveat emptor.