Review: Clean

Maggie Cheung in Clean
Of all the movies so far that have stood a chance of being called “The Best SIFF Movie So Far” (I don’t think that 2046 or Mysterious Skin should be up for that title since they are sort of in a league of their own — being objects of my obsession and all…), Clean would easily win hands-down. This movie was excellent: great acting, great music, great cameos, great story.

To briefly summarize the movie: Maggie Cheung plays Emily. At the beginning of the movie, Emily is with her boyfriend Lee. They are rockers. Lee is an aging rocker, but they are rockers nonetheless. They are also heroin addicts. After a fight, Emily leaves a motel room they are staying in to shoot up alone. When she returns the next morning, she finds the police at the motel because Lee has died of an overdose. She spends six months in rehab and then tries to deal with entering the real world sober. It also turns out that Emily and Lee have a son, Jay, who has been left in the care of Lee’s parents (Lee’s father, Albrecht, is played by Nick Nolte), who live in Vancouver. Albrecht meets with Emily and tells her that until she gets her life back together, he doesn’t think she should see Jay — the kid needs stability, etc. in his life. So once out of jail, Emily spends most of the movie trying to get her life back in order so she can be back with her son. Things go pretty well (she first has a job as a waitress, which doesn’t work out, but she does ultimately end up working at a department store, apparently) and she convinces Albrecht to see Jay. Their meeting, which has a rough start, ends up pretty okay. At the end of the movie, Albrecht agrees to let Emily take care of Jay and Emily goes off to record an album with a woman she met while in prison.

Okay, so that synopsis doesn’t get to the emotional value of the movie, but trust me: it’s great.

I have seen some interviews where Cheung mentions that this role was a difficult (from her acceptance speech at Cannes 04 (where she won best actress for the role): “It was difficult to play but not the most difficult, technically speaking. It was difficult because it was painful”) role for her, and she pulled it off tremendously. No surprise here that she won best actress. I also saw somewhere that is somewhat of a “break-through” role for her in the West, since prior to Clean she had been cast in non-Asian movies as a stereotypically beautiful, quiet Asian woman, and this role really gave her a chance to break from the mold.

As for Nolte, I have to say: he impresses me. I’ve really only seem him previously in Lorenzo’s Oil, U-Turn, and Affliction. Affliction is definitely one of the movies that has stayed with me ever since I saw it, and although I don’t think about it often, I would easily say is one of my favorite movies. He has an uncanny ability to play that raw, emotional, weak-but-gruff character and he does a great job as Albrecht — reluctant to trust Emily, but at the same time all-too-aware that her son is all she has left and that the two of them need each other.

Music is, obviously, a central theme of this movie since Emily was a rocker. A lot of the songs were very shoegazer and ambient -like… and that would make since because David Roback of Mazzy Star was involved with the movie (see the cameos below). The cloudy, atmospheric music definitely helped shape the mood of the film. It’s all-too-easy to include lots of pop-type songs in a drug movie soundtrack (see: Trainspotting, Casino, etc.), but I think the subtly of the music in Clean made it all the more powerful.

One scene, in particular, that I loved was when Emily was playing pool with a friend. She had recorded a demo tape while in prison and wanted her friend to check it out. The friend put on a pair of headphones and listened to the song while playing pool. While she was listening, the soundtrack for the song was turned way up, but you could still sort of hear the background noise — much like really listening to music on headphones.

The film also had some great cameo appearances. I am always delighted to see Tricky in movies. I’ve previously seen him in The Fifth Element, though that was a “character” role. In Clean he played himself — and he apparently talked to Albrecht often and was friends with Lee. Emily tried getting him to talk to Albrecht about seeing her son at one point, but Tricky was being somewhat of an asshole and wouldn’t help her. It was great. The other cameo appearance was David Roback (as mentioned above). He was one of the pivotal members of Mazzy Star, and probably did more than anyone to establish their wall-of-guitar sound. In Clean he plays himself as a record producer who works with Emily at the end of the film. The song the two of them create (which Cheung performs) at the end, “Down in the Light,” was hauntingly wonderful, and made me wish that the two would collaborate on an entire album. We can wish, at least.

Two more things of note:

First, the film made great use of oners (long, continuous shots). I specifically remember one that must have lasted about two or three minutes (which is considered long in film — especially nowadays when shots are so quick) when Emily was working in the restaurant. The camera followed her from a table down some stairs to the bathroom to outside where she smoked and back into the restaurant. It was lovely.

Second, when Jay tells Emily that he hates her because she killed her father and that people who use drugs are bad, weak, etc. Emily responds with something to the effect of: your father was in a lot of pain, drugs helped him, he was brilliant, drugs are fun sometimes, your father and I had lots of fun with drugs, but we paid the price, what they tell you about drugs (they are bad, for weak people, etc.) doesn’t address how complicated they are. It was probably one of the best realistic, anti-drug speeches I’ve heard.

In case my introduction didn’t make it apparent, I gave this movie 5/5. I hope it gets a wider U.S. release, as I really think it deserves wider exposure.

One thought on “Review: Clean

  1. I went to this movie with Jason. I love this movie as well. But, being honest, I don’t think Maggie Cheung is a good singer, although the music is great.

    I also gave this movie 5/5. It was based on the acting of Maggie Cheung, her son (lovely mix boy), and her father in law.

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