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CHEUNG BRINGS GRACE TO PAINFUL `CLEAN'.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

A class act among movies about drug addiction, ``Clean'' won its star Maggie Cheung the Cannes Film Festival's 2004 best actress award.

It was thoroughly deserved. Rarely has the need for speed (or heroin, or methadone, or ...) been as credibly jumbled-up on screen with the desire to get straight and put one's life in order. Cheung captures every nuance of confusion and conflict that's inherent to the process, and adds the characteristic notes of elegant devastation those familiar with her great Hong Kong romances, such as Wong Kar Wai's ``In the Mood for Love,'' know distinguish her among the world's great film actresses.

Working mostly in English and French for her ex-husband, writer-director Olivier Assayas (they were breaking up while this film was being made), Cheung always seems perfectly natural, yet somehow not of the busy, degrading worlds her character, Emily Wang, blunders through. Which is as it should be. When she's not chemically altered, Emily is coping with emotional trials that could easily destroy her.

Though strong and determined at her core, Emily is so instinctively wayward that her every move generates great suspense. Will she make the right or the wrong decision this time? And go at it full bore or space out at a crucial juncture? ``Clean'' is character study as first class nail-biter.

In a crummy motel room in an ugly Canadian refinery town, Emily and her boyfriend, over-the-hill rock musician Lee Hauser (James Johnston), argue about his shaky future, her fumbling efforts to get him a new record deal and her rampant heroin use.

She leaves in a snit, shoots up and nods off in a car by the lake. When she returns the next morning, Lee has overdosed and the cops catch her carrying.

She serves six months.

Lee and Emily's young son, Jay (James Dennis), has lived most of his life with Lee's parents in Vancouver. When Emily is released from prison, the boy's grandfather Albrecht (Nick Nolte, looking like his mug shot, but quietly, compellingly emanating tough love and compassion) meets her, and as gently as he can, insists that she stay away from Jay until she gets her life in order.

Emily returns to her hometown, Paris, where she gets waitress work in an uncle's Chinese restaurant. Her off hours are spent hitting up old acquaintances for dope, help getting Jay back, some kind of recording or broadcast work (she used to be a hostess on a French variation of MTV), places to live, whatever; she's mostly met with dignity-grinding rejection.

But a not entirely plausible chain of events brings Albrecht and Jay to Paris, and Emily's greatest dream is set in direct conflict to some of her lesser ones.

Assayas and Cheung met when they made his clever, insightful, 1996 film about filmmaking and its illusions, ``Irma Vep.'' His grasp of the music business and its periphery here feels just as authentic.

``Clean'' is a far more serious drama, and the two films bookend the couple's relationship quite interestingly. If ``Vep'' projected the playfulness of early courtship, ``Clean'' represents a rueful, unblinking yet forgiving and bone-deep understanding of what someone you've loved is capable of. And when that someone is as talented as Maggie Cheung, that's something very rich and mesmerizingly beautiful, overlaid with a melancholy sense of great, irreplaceable loss.

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss(at)dailynews.com

CLEAN - Three and one half stars

(R: drug use, language, nudity)

Starring: Maggie Cheung, Nick Nolte, Beatrice Dalle, James Dennis.

Director: Olivier Assayas.

Running time: 1 hr. 50 min.

Playing: Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

In a nutshell: Cheung is magnificent as a rock musician's widow struggling to kick her own drug habit. Nolte touches as the gentle but firm father-in-law who has custody of her young son. In English and French with English subtitles.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 19, 2006
Words:642
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