DIRECTOR DEREK YEE Tung-shing likens Cecilia Cheung Pak-chi to a student who can ace exams without studying. 'What she has is inherent talent mixed with skills,' he says. 'She can deliver the emotions very effectively.' Yee can speak with some authority, having directed Cheung in Lost in Time, one of the favourites for the upcoming 23rd Hong Kong Film Awards. In the pivotal scene - when Cheung backs out of a hospital emergency room in shock after learning of her fiance's death - Yee allows the camera to capture the tide of emotions washing over her. It's a scene that would have challenged many more experienced, and older, actresses. That Cheung could achieve it at 23, with only five years of acting behind her, is a testament to her talent. Reinforcing that promise, Cheung goes into the awards as a triple nominee - twice for best actress, for her performances in Lost in Time and Running on Karma, and in the best original song category, with the theme from Lost in Time. In Lost in Time, Cheung's skills were on full display as she carried the audience with her when her character, Siu Wai, rode one emotional roller coaster after another. Considering Hong Kong's lacklustre output last year, Cheung's role in Lost in Time is a frontrunner for the awards. It's not unlike Yee's earlier film, C'est la Vie Mon Cheri, which catapulted Anita Yuen Wing-yee to the A-list. The common theme is a woman triumphing in the face of adversity to find love. Lost in Time will probably stand Cheung in better stead than Johnnie To Kei-fung's Running on Karma, where she played second fiddle to Andy Lau Tak-wah's tortured ex-monk. Her most dramatic moment in that production was when her own decapitated head was stuck on a tree branch. Cheung will face formidable competition in the best actress category. Carina Lau Ka-ling will be giving her a run for her money in her first substantial role in years - as the wife of a triad leader in Infernal Affairs 2. Sandra Ng Kwun-yu, on the other hand, is still riding on her Golden Horse victory as Ah Kum, the prostitute with a heart of gold in Golden Chicken 2. With the hype from Floating Landscape long over, chances for Karena Lam Kar-yan - another new young talent - seem a little thin. Hong Kong-born Cheung endured a difficult family life before she was sent to Australia to study at the age of 14, when her parents divorced. At 17, she returned home and talent agents snapped up the fresh-faced teenager after she was cast in a television commercial for a soft drink. In an industry of manufactured idols whose popularity is based more on looks than talent, it is exciting when a fresh young face so obviously full of promise bursts on to the scene. Cheung's immense promise was evident from the start of her film career. In 1999, after that soft drink commercial, Cheung was cast as a young nightclub hostess who wins the heart of Stephen Chiau Sing-chi's impoverished actor in King of Comedy. Despite being a supporting role, Cheung made the most of her outing, presenting a range of emotions from little girl lost to hardened hostess to vulnerable young woman in love. It was enough to garner her a nomination for best newcomer at the 1999 Hong Kong Film Awards. But it was Jingle Ma Chor-sing's tearjerker, Fly Me to Polaris, released in the same year, that would unveil Cheung's range as an actress. As the nurse who unwittingly falls in love with a patient who dies and comes back in another form to comfort her, Cheung's depth of emotion was on display. Ma, who also directed Cheung in Para Para Sakura and in a guest spot on Tokyo Raiders, reckons she is without peer for her age. 'She's very talented and she's capable of pulling off really emotional roles,' says Ma, who declares both her nominated roles 'good work'. 'Despite her age, she's experienced a lot by being sent to study overseas at a young age, and she has a pretty complicated family situation. This background has been a great advantage.' Her personal life and the speculation over her romantic interests - she has been linked to singers Daniel Chan Hiu-tung, Nicholas Tse Ting-fung and Jordan Chan Siu-chun - have eclipsed her versatility. Non-dramatic roles such as the more successful comedic outings Cat and Mouse, The Lion Roars and Wu Yen, show the extent of her comic timing. Her acting prowess hasn't escaped the attention of overseas directors. She has starred opposite popular South Korean actor Choi Min-sik in the drama Failan and is presently in Beijing working on Chen Kaige's new movie, The Promise. If for some inexplicable reason she doesn't get her golden statuette, the good news is that both Yee and Ma think Cheung's best is yet to come. The two directors feel she will only reach her full potential in another three to four years. 'I'm waiting for her to go one step further. In the next three to four years, she has it in her to develop into the next Maggie Cheung Man-yuk,' says Ma. The 23rd Hong Kong Film Awards will be held on April 4.