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Crouching Tigress: Michelle Yeoh, Part 2
we conclude our conversation with the martial arts actress, currently starring in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON.
By Craig Reid
December 28, 2000
Born as Yang Zi Chong in Ipoh, a small mining town in West Malaysia, Michelle Yeoh grew up speaking English and Malay before Chinese. As a teenager she moved to England and studied ballet and acting at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Upon returning home in 1983,she won the Miss Malaysia beauty pageant followed by becoming Miss Mooba in Melbourne, Australia. Her acting career started in 1984 after being cast in a commercial opposite Jackie Chan. During a stint at D&B films, she was known as Michelle Khan before adopting her current name Michelle Yeoh. In her first film, OWL VS BUMBO (1985) she played a subdued, shrinking violet character, but later that year, Sammo Hung cast her in the female cop-buddy film, YES MADAM. Her cop facade continued in ROYAL WARRIORS (1986); then she was cast as Huo Ming Mong in the Indiana Jones yarn, MAGNIFICENT WARRIORS (1987). After wrapping the non-actioner EASY MONEY (1988), Yeoh married D&B's founder Dickson Poon. He encouraged her to retire, and three years later they were divorced.
When Stanley Tong was asked to direct Jackie Chan's POLICE STORY 3 (a.k.a. SUPERCOP, 1991), he did it with the condition that he wanted the world's best stuntman and stuntwomen together. Yeoh's return opposite Chan was magnificently engaging. After reprising her cop role in Tong's PROJECT S (a.k.a. ONCE A COP or SUPERCOP 2) (1992), her next efforts were with Hong Kong's most outrageous, Fant-Asia film director Ching Siu Tung: BUTTERFLY AND SWORD, HEROIC TRIO and its sequel THE EXECUTIONERS (all 1993) gave her characters a more mythical dimension. Her next vehicle, HOLY WEAPON (a.k.a. SEVEN MAIDENS) (1993) was an off-centered Fant-Asia farce. She next starred in Yuen Woo Ping's THE TAI CHI MASTER (1993) and WING CHUN (1994), the first time Woo Ping cast a female as his lead fighter and character. Prior to the Bond film TOMORROW NEVER DIES, she did Ching's WONDER 7 (1994) and Sammo Hung's AH KHAM (THE STUNTWOMAN) (1996), a film dedicated to her as she suffered her most serious injuries to date.
In Part 1 of our interview, Yeoh shared with us her thoughts on CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and MATRIX 2. In Part II, we learn more about CROUCHING TIGER, her injury suffered on the set, and a bit about her love for martial arts, philosophy and her new production company, Mythical Films.FANDOM: YOUR ACTION FIGHTS ARE VERY BALLET-LIKE. HOW DID YOU EVER END UP STUDYING BALLET IN ENGLAND?
It's always been part of my dream. My ambition was to always be a ballerina, a ballet teacher, and start my own school in Malaysia. I started ballet since I was 4, and knew all along I'd go to England. To me, RAD (The Royal Academy of Dance) was the ultimate place to go and that's why I ended up in England. WITH INJURY DURING THE FILM, WAS IT A WIRE GAG THAT WENT HORRIBLY AWRY?
No, it was just landing wrong. Accidents really just happen when you do these kind of action sequences, and you've seen the action sequences that we have done. They are long. One second you are on a wire and the next second you are not on the wire. We were working late nights; it was like 3:30am, the last day after ten days of nonstop fighting. Plus, the ground was uneven. Who knows? It wasn't even a difficult moment, but all of us were just stunned. But when things like that happen, you have just got to go on with it.A FEW TIMES THROUGHOUT THE FILM IT SOUNDED AS IF YOUR MANDARIN WAS A BIT UNCOMFORTABLE. HOW DIFFICULT WAS THE CHALLENGE OF HAVING TO SPEAK MANDARIN CHINESE DIALOGUE?
[long drawn sigh] Did it show? [laughs] Well, I don't read Chinese. It was indeed a great challenge in that sense. But you know, I had my dialogue coach and Ang with me, who is such a perfectionist and who would just grill me until I got it right. It was first about understanding, then after that digesting, then pure memorizing all these different sounds and being very accurate. And oh no, I was hoping that it didn't show. My character lived outside of Beijing, and so I didn't have to do the Beijing accent. MY MOTHER-IN-LAW HAS THIS STRANGE SZECHUAN-MANDARIN ACCENT THAT'S HARD FOR ME TO UNDERSTAND.
Yes, provinces all have their very own strong accents. When we first started the movie, Cheng Pei Pei was going to have her accent, and Chang Zhen [who played Lo] was going to have his accent, and this person would have that accent. And in the end nobody could understand what they were saying. Forget about us, even the crew from Beijing thought this was all weird.SO WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE WITH CROUCHING TIGER?
The character, language and finally the physical aspects due to having to get back into it after the injury. I was in Baltimore for 3 1/2 weeks and then went back to shooting. I needed that time for the doctor to make sure that everything was set and the two screws and the new ligament were in the right place, and after that it was just pure pain, hell and rehab. I took a physiotherapist from Baltimore with me for a while, and then my doctor flew out before the final sequence to give the green light. So it was traumatic, but at the same time it builds character; it makes you learn perseverance, and I wasn't ready to pack it in and say, 'I'm hurt guys. Sorry I'm not coming back.' I mean, you feel the responsibilitythat everyone is on the edge saying, 'Oh my god what are we going to do now? How the hell are we going to replace Michelle?'LATER ON IN THE FILM, I DID NOTICE THAT YOUR FIGHTS HAD LESS WIREWORK INVOLVED. WAS THAT A CONSIDERATION FOR YOUR INJURY?
Actually, if we had used more wire work, that probably would have been easier.WELL, THAT'S TRUE, BEING SUSPENDED IN AIR WOULD TAKE PRESSURE OF THE KNEE, UNLESS YOU DROPPED FUNNY.
Right. In the air, you have less impact things going on. But I actually enjoy doing wirework. Also, with wirework, it's not about you doing what you can do, but it's all about timing, sometimes pure luck and all those different kinds of elements, like these 5 guys pulling you on one side and the person you are fighting with and everything coming together at the right moment. You've done Chinese film; I know you know what I'm talking about.WITHOUT SOUNDING LIKE A WESTERN UNION MESSAGE SORT OF THING, FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE, WHAT IS THE POINT OF THE FILM?
[Laughs] It's very much about emotion, love, honor and tradition. And the great thing about this genre of films...these kind of stories are very close to the Chinese culture, and what I'm most happy about is that they are being embraced by the rest of the world and not just thinking that these genre of films are chop socky. It's lightweight in that sense, but with the dramatic side of this triangle, the high moral codes, the beauty and poetic visual feel of the film, the rest of the world now has the chance to look at it and take it seriously in that way.PERHAPS CROUCHING TIGER COULD BE AN INTERNATIONAL, PSEUDO REBIRTH OF CHINESE FILM.
[Laughs] That's a very good way of putting it.FOR YOUR FILMS, YOU HAVE TO PRACTICE MARTIAL ARTS RATHER DILIGENTLY, BUT YOU'RE NOT A TRADITIONAL MARTIAL ARTIST PER SE, IN THAT ONE GETS SEEPED INTO THE PHILOSOPHICAL AND SPIRITUAL ASPECTS. DO YOU EVER FEEL DEPRIVED OF THAT SIDE OF THE ART?
Oh no, I think that's the side that attracts me most. In the beginning, it was very much the physical side, getting it out on screen, making sure it looks right and the power and energy is there. As you learn, first off, you might get into it because visually it's stimulating, or when you see someone do it, it's powerful and you want to be part of that. But once you get into martial arts, it's the philosophy behind it that makes it work. I don't believe in fighting; it's one thing that I stay away from. When I do martial arts, it's for my own peace of mind and health; I'm physically and mentally in tune with my own body. Spiritually, it can get to become very religious; that's when the meditation comes in and you can get in touch with your spiritual side. So for me, I've been reading a lot more books about that, and it's a sense of discovery as well as understanding what is around you, what is beyond the material and physical side.OF ALL THE FILMS YOU'VE DONE, WHICH CHARACTER YOU'VE PLAYED HAS PERSONALLY TOUCHED YOU THE MOST AND WHY?
This one [Yu Shu Lien], because of the depth of the emotional elements and the very dramatic death scene with the love of her life. At that moment, this character really blows up to the point where you can see thateven at the final moment, when she knows he has gone to hershe will turn around and still be that noble character, even down to his final breath. I mean these swordsmen, these heroes, they train for years of their life to attain that final enlightenment, and they truly believe that when they attain that, your energy will live on and your spirit is free. So for me in that sense, it's working up to this scene. Fortunatelyand I touch woodapart from my granddad, I haven't experienced such a great loss. So to dig into myself, you can't do it superficially; to cry from that, it has to come from within. And to get to that state, it was exploring within myself. That is the thing that really gets to you: the sense of loss, the sense of emptinessthat there is someone so close to you that you have held in your heart for so long. And for me, it is not a tragedy in this sense in this film; it has that bittersweet love: there is still hope; she will still continue. So for me, this character has meant the most in that way. With all the other action films I've done, it's not quite so much into depth with the character or scripts; it's easy to get sidetracked by the action, and the drama almost becomes the side dish.EARLIER, YOU MENTIONED YOUR NEW PRODUCTION COMPANY MYTHICAL FILMS. WHAT IS THE STATUS OF THIS NEW VENTURE IN YOUR LIFE?
It's called Mythical Films, up and running since August; Media-Asia is our partner in Hong Kong. It's the most important thing for me. I really love the industry, and want to do more than just be an actress; I want to do a lot more behind the scenes, like being a producer. We want to nurture the next generation of filmmakers, especially behind the scenes and particularly young directors. I think there's a great demand for that, and for the future of our industrythis is where it is. We have great directors now, but new blood is important for any industry. Our first film will possibly be THE TOUCH, where I'll produce and act. It will be interesting doing two roles. It's not easy. As an actress, you're more cool and protected; you do your stuff and wish everybody luck. But being a producer, everyone is looking to you and wanting you to make decisions on how things are going to work. It's very exciting for me right now, and for me I really believe in the talent of Asians in front and behind the scenes and in the quality of Asian cinema. I want to push all this across the floor. I don't want to direct, not right now; I don't know, maybe in ten yearswho knows?EIGHT OR NINE YEARS AGO, I ASKED JACKIE CHAN IF IT WAS IMPORTANT FOR HIM TO BE SUCCESSFUL IN AMERICA. HE SAID, 'NO,' STATING THAT HE IS HAPPY DOING HONG KONG FILMS. [WE LAUGH] I THINK IT HAS BECOME IMPORTANT FOR HIM. HOW ABOUT FOR YOU?
The American market is big; it's the biggest in the world, so if you prioritized things because it's big, then I'd say, 'Yes, it's important.' Everybody wants to be part of that market, so why not if you have the opportunity to get into it? But the most important thing is you have to be happy with where you are and you have to be proud of what you do. Of course, it's important to work on both sides [Asian and Western markets], but don't forget the side you are from. The good thing now is that there are a lot of co-productions where Americans recognize talent from here, not just actors, but people behind the camera. It's important to me to have that integrated feeling.A FINAL QUESTION. DO YOU HAVE ANY PERSONAL CAUSES OR SOMETHING YOU HAVE PASSIONATE FEELINGS ABOUT?
Oh yes. I've work here in Hong Kong with the Hong Kong cancer fund for many years now. I'm also with the AIDs concern, I'm a patron with the Kelly Support group, which works with troubled teenagers. I also was just recently in Singapore for a children party for the intellectually challenged. It's beautiful when you work with these kids, and the looks on their faces are the greatest gifts that anyone can give you. So for me it's important that I'm in touch with all these different elements as a person.