Nick Nolte Helps Maggie Cheung Get “Clean” (2004)

Cheung and Nolte

Maggie Cheung and Nick Nolte in “Clean” (photo credit:

Clean (2004), an Olivier Assayas movie starring Maggie Cheung and Nick Nolte, allows us to move, via the work of a well-known Hong Kong actress, from the cinema of Hong Kong (see my previous film posts) to that of France (in cooperation with Canada and the UK).  When this movie was in production, Assayas and Cheung’s three-year marriage disintegrated, but their professional relationship apparently did not suffer.  Cheung’s performance won Best Actress at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.

Maggie Cheung

Maggie Cheung as Emily in “Clean” (photo credit:

Born in Hong Kong, Cheung emigrated to England with her family when she was eight years old.  At age 18, she returned to Hong Kong, where she became a model, beauty pageant contestant (runner-up in the Miss Hong Kong contest and semi-finalist in the Miss World competition), and actress.  Among her many HK movies were multiple collaborations with director Wong Kar Wai (starting with As Tears Go By in 1988) .  Later, she lived for ten years in Paris.  Besides Clean, she also starred in Assayas’ Irma Vep.  Cheung’s cosmopolitan life made her a natural for the top billing in Clean.

Directed and written by:  Olivier Assayas

Starring:   Maggie CheungNick NolteBéatrice Dalle

Runtime 111 mins.; color; DTS and Dolby sound.  Dialogue in English, French,  and Cantonese (subtitles available).

Cheung plays Emily Wang, a former music VJ and common-law wife of Lee Hauser (James Johnston), a former rock star whose waning career the music press blames on Emily (much the way that Yoko Ono was blamed for the breakup of the Beatles).  Lee is trying to make a career comeback in his early forties, but his volatile relationship with Emily and their shared addiction to heroin have limited his creative output. The couple has a son, Jay (James Dennis), whom they have left with Lee’s parents, Albrecht (Nolte) and Rosemary (Martha Henry), in Vancouver.

Plot Synopsis

First Act: Emily and Lee arrive at a cheap motel in an industrial Canadian city where Lee has a gig the next day . Before they go to the venue with Lee’s manager, Vernon (Don McKellar), to hear and meet another musical group (Metric, as themselves), Emily arranges with the motel’s front desk clerk (Paul Brogen) to find a local heroin dealer. They return from the club early after Emily has a confrontation with Vernon over a proposed contract for Lee’s next album. She goes out to make a heroin buy after calling the dealer whose number the clerk has given her. When she returns, she has an argument with Lee over a music magazine article that was critical of her effect on his career. She leaves in their car, driving to the shore of a nearby lake, where she shoots up in the car. When she goes back to the hotel the next morning, it is swarming with police officers and paramedics. Lee is dead from a heroin overdose. Emily is arrested and charged with possession.

Second Act:  Emily spends six months in prison, where she is placed on methadone maintenance for her addiction.  When she is released, Albrecht tells her that the court has awarded custody of Jay to him and Rosemary.  He is also managing Lee’s estate and has rebuilt Emily’s finances to enable her to make a fresh start.  Emily decides to return to Paris (her “home town”) to try to rebuild her life.  Her uncle gives her a job as a server in his Chinese restaurant, but her dream is to record the music that she co-wrote with a fellow inmate while in prison.  Many of Lee’s friends, including Tricky (as himself), and Emily’s former friends (such as her former TV producer, Irene Paolini [Jeanne Balibar]) want to have little or nothing to do with her, although Tricky has been faithful to his friendship with Lee.  After being fired from her restaurant job, Emily stops taking methadone, manages to stay clean, and finds a job selling clothing at a Paris department store.  Elena (Béatrice Dalle), her Parisian musician friend, listens to her music and offers her a room in her house, which is also a recording studio.

Third Act:  Meanwhile, Rosemary has fallen ill.  Albrecht takes her to London for a second opinion, which leads to a hospital stay and a diagnosis of terminal illness.  Jay has come with Albrecht and Rosemary; Albrecht takes him to visit Emily in Paris.  He tells Emily that he is getting older and will not be able to continue to raise Jay without Rosemary’s help.  He allows her to spend the weekend with Jay on the condition that she brings him back.  While with Jay, Emily receives word that she has the opportunity to record her music in San Francisco.  She decides to take Jay with her.  When she returning to Albrecht’s hotel to steal Jay’s passport, Albrecht catches her.  Mercifully, he offers her a “deal” that would allow her both to follow her artistic dreams and eventually get her son back.  Will she take it?


Clean serves up a realistic and convinging portrait of the intersection of artistic creativity and addiction.  Cheung and Nolte provide strong performances.  Each convincingly portrays the struggle to cope with and overcome life’s adversities:  grief, guilt, and addiction (Chueng) and loss, old age, and death (Nolte).  Their chemistry as father-in-law and daughter-in-law is powerful.   The main theme is one of forgiveness, both of self and others, which is symbolized by Nolte’s character and his actions, which have a significant impact on the self-rehabilitation (physical, mental, and creative) of Cheung’s character.