BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: Maggie Cheung’s swansong.

FORMER CRITIC, French director Olivier Assayas, is one of France’s most erratic talents. When he is good however (Irma Vep), he is simply fantastic. Clean, while certainly not hitting the giddy heights of Irma, is a quietly compelling and fascinating tale. Its central pleasure, of course, is a stellar performance by the brilliant Maggie Cheung.

There is none of the glamour of Wong Kar-wai or Zhang Yimou in Cheung’s performance here – this is grungy, sobering and restless. And famously, this film was made as Assayas was finalising his divorce with Cheung, adding an extra level of loss to its subtext (further still, Cheung retired to pursue a career in film composing, making this reputedly her last acting role). Cheung plays Emily Wang, a girlfriend of a faded rockstar Lee Hauser (played by James Johnston of the Bad Seeds – note the poster of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in the film) who overdoses on the heroin she got him. She returns to find him dead and the scene swarming with police, and promptly finds herself arrested for possession too. She was already portrayed as a Yoko Ono figure, constantly being blamed for the decline of Lee, but Lee’s death pushed her even further away from her former life and acquaintances. Eventually when she is released from prison, she attempts to restart her life, but also see her son, Jay again, who had been left with his paternal grandparents while Lee and Emily lived the rock lifestyle.

This is a film about redemption and forgiveness. Potentially, this could have been mawkish territory, and ripe for an over-play of emotions. It will also be fair to say that the film does not really surprise in its narrative direction either. However, the film is helped immeasurably by the performances, particularly an understated and highly sympathetic Nick Nolte as Jay’s grandfather. The sentimentality is kept at bay mostly, and the dynamics between Cheung and Nolte were truly wonderful.

The film was a little unconvincing in its depiction of the music scene (though dance-punk was big back in ’04, so Assayas got that element right at the film’s beginning). The overall franticness of the camerawork, and the hysterical (and unengaging) nature of the performances didn’t quite gel nor did that narrative trajectory rise above musical cliché (and bless her, but Maggie Cheung can’t really sing – though she did sound a bit like Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star whose guitarist David Roback appears in the film as the producer). There was also music by Tricky and Brian Eno, and an appearance by Tricky, to add some musical credibility. However, the film does settle down as soon as the film shifts focus towards a more emotionally moving storyline, and becomes an intimately filmed, and excellently performed piece of work.