Irma Vep starring Maggie Cheung; directed by Olivier Assayas; French & English with subtitles; (1996)
The Heroic Trio starring Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh & Maggie Cheung; directed by Johnny To; Cantonese with subtitles; (1992)
I believe the choice was Irma Vep but Cowen augmented the choice with The Heroic Trio because the latter film is referenced in the former.
A few observations:
I'm surprised how many people don't know what a double feature is. I heard both people in front of me in line ask if they could buy a ticket for only one film and cashier explained what a double feature is.
A few years after filming Irma Vep, Maggie Cheung married Irma Vep director Olivier Assayas.
Irma Vep was the first time I have heard Maggie Cheung speak English. Surprisingly she spoke with an English accent which I later learned was due to her having lived in England between the ages of 8 and 18.
Irma Vep is an anagram for vampire. The slender plot of the film has Maggie Cheung playing herself - a Hong Kong actor named Maggie Cheung who is in Paris to film a remake of Louis Feuillade's silent serial Les Vampires. Why would they cast a Chinese woman (with limited language skills) to play a French vampire? In the film, it is because the director (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is infatuated with Cheung based on her performance in The Heroic Trio.
Anything beyond this plot description is superfluous. The production of Irma Vep (the film within the film) is chaotic and dysfunctional. There is sniping, backstabbing, the director goes missing and Cheung seems to fall under the spell of vampire on the set.
Irma Vep is one of these films that kind of meanders and is punctuated with memorable scenes (many with Cheung wearing a latex bodysuit modeled on Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman costume). There is a amusing interview where a journalist interviews Cheung. He launches into a diatribe of state sponsored films which are targeted towards the intelligentsia before singing the praises of Schwarzenegger and Van Damme.
Assayas positions the camera intrusively as if we are eavesdropping on the conversations. I'm not sure how much of Cheung's performance is improvised or revealing of her true personality but Irma Vep's Maggie Cheung is a winsome & appealing woman as she tries to navigate the bizarre situation she has found herself in.
I have a suspicion that Irma Vep is a film that would benefit from repeat viewings. It's likely littered with French film references that I didn't catch. For example, I suspect that criticism of Léaud's character's films is really criticism of Jean-Luc Godard's work. I'm sure the film must have seemed like a welcome change of pace for Cheung who was cranking out HK action and wuxia films at a prodigious pace in the first half of the 1990s.
Even without an intimate knowledge of the French film industry or the source material, Assayas' skill & vision as a director come through clearly in Irma Vep.
|Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep|
The Heroic Trio was directed by Johnny To and features an impressive cast of Chinese actresses - the late Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh & Maggie Cheung. Mui who died at the age of 40 in 2003, is largely forgotten today. In The Heroic Trio, she was the best known of the three lead actresses and her character was first among equals. That Yeoh and particularly Cheung are heralded among their cohort of Chinese actresses make one wonder what Mui would have accomplished. She was cast in Zhang Yimou's hit film House of the Flying Daggers (2004) but dropped out due to her failing health.
In the pantheon of great HK action films, The Heroic Trio is pretty far down the list. It did well enough to merit a sequel but it felt more like a gimmick to get three attractive actresses on screen together. Mui plays a police inspector's wife who has undergone rigorous training in martial arts. When needed, she dons a mask and fights crime under the sobriquet of Wonder Woman.
Michelle Yeoh begins the film as the villain (Invisible Girl), the chief lieutenant of an evil master. She uses an invisible cloak to kidnap male babies because her master has some plan to install the child as the next emperor of China. In a subplot, Invisible Girl is Wonder Woman's younger sister who didn't make the cut with sifu who trained Wonder Woman. They are estranged when the film begins.
Maggie Cheung plays the roguish Thief Catcher, a shotgun wielding, dynamite throwing, motorcycle riding, booty shorts wearing bounty hunter. In another subplot, Invisible Girl & Thief Catcher trained together under the evil master but Thief Catcher has escaped his evil reach to make her living cashing in bounties.
The three converge when a high ranking police officer hires Thief Catcher to recover his kidnapped son.
The film is a series of fight scenes separated by flashbacks. The action choreography isn't quite up to To's best work. There are a few scenes that appear silly (typically at Thief Catcher's expense) but the film holds together as well as can be expected. Eventually, Invisible Girl is convinced to join the other two in their battle against the evil master.
Watching The Heroic Trio is closer to an amusing check off on my cinematic bucket list than a rewarding film experience.
|Maggie Cheung in The Heroic Trio|