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London-based Emily Wang gained minor notoriety from her VJ-ing on cable television. She is now more renowned for being the longtime girlfriend and pseudo manager of rock musician Lee Hauser, who seems to be on the brink of stardom. Those that know the couple believe she is a bad influence on him, and is the reason why he is a junkie. After Lee dies from an accidental heroin overdose and Emily is imprisoned for six months on possession charges, she learns that the courts have awarded custody of their young adolescent son, Jay, to Lee's aging parents, Albrecht and Rosemary Hauser, who live in Vancouver. A concerned Albrecht asks that she not attempt to see Jay for at least two years while she cleans up her act so as to give Jay a fighting chance at a decent life. Emily initially agrees, knowing that she is in no position to look after Jay. To regain her life, she decides to move back to her old stomping grounds of Paris. As Emily tries mostly unsuccessfully to become clean while eking ...Written by
Against a landscape of industrial detritus, autumnal junkyards and chemical cenotaphs, Maggie Chung implodes. She doesn't lose it with decorous resignation, as she did in familiar masterpieces by Wong Kar-Wai and Stanley Kwan. Instead, she insults and jostles her way to the bottom, ditching the reticence that constrained her in nearly every other film she's made.
Seldom heard until now, her clipped British English is underscored at first by breakneck speech-rhythms, cadences en route to a crackup: these telegraph the destructive impatience of her character. A procession of gas stations, wheezing old cars and stained Formica desks follows, terminating in contracts signed with descending water-spray scribbles. The Eno-dependent score draws on _Another Green World_, the visuals, _Paris, Texas_.
Her heroin/death crash gives way to temporary calm, which is jostled into verbal violence again after her character moves to Paris. That setting is where her character seems most natural and believable: berating and brushing away friends in a culture peculiarly disposed to viewing argumentativeness as courage and social dysfunction as passion.
Chung's addict isn't always N.A.-accurate, but her delineation of the role she was asked to play borders on virtuosic. Much as one loves seeing Chung embody the perfect suffering torch-song icon in films like Center Stage and In the Mood for Love, it is thrilling to hear her claim other languages, styles and emotional idioms as her own. Even her singing is antithetical to the voice of her earlier characters. And it isn't an accident that she is cast against a restrained Nick Nolte, who portrayed a raging drunk so affectingly in _Affliction_, and a complacent bohemian Béatrice Dalle, whose superficially flawed gap-toothed beauty and eccentric portrayals have provided temporary pleasure in so many dystopian films.
Despite Clean's hoary conceit -- heroin weaning as spiritual redemption -- the cinematography is beautiful and evocative, particularly the landscape pans. As in Drugstore Cowboy, one feels the drugs and the music to be an arbitrary pretext for a film that is actually about something else.
The music references are embarrassing. Particularly wince-making are repeated references to Mazzy Star, since that's who Chung's character is intended to resemble (could the director have been more obvious?). The model isn't surprising, given Chung's orientation: One way to get a convincing performance out of a non-singer is to develop a character voice -- in this case, something deadpan and breathy, with almost no vibrato. Even so, the director's lack of finesse is revealed insofar as Mazzy Star's name is mentioned at all -- let alone repeated and underlined by two different characters.
Chung plays a vintage failed rock singer well in the San Francisco studio, with her careless beaten unbranded leather, AKG K-240 headphones, Neumann TLM-103 caged mike, pop filter (though she doesn't need one) and groggy swaying motion. Even so, it's Chung's mastery of her character's pacing that seems most musical, not the voice she musters or the blues dirge she happens to sing. One wonders what Nicholas Roeg would have to say about her, um, performance.
As always with Chung, the emotional repression of the character is what makes her breakdown so affecting. In work that is elegiac, one always wants the tears to come slowly: talking oneself out of them, bracing oneself, is what forces emotion to surface in the end.
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