Michelle Yeoh: The Big Adventurer

A truly international star, Michelle Yeoh has gone from fight scenes with Jackie Chan to love scenes with James Bond. She’s worked with Oscar winners Danny Boyle and Ang Lee, and turned The Skinny’s Michael Gillespie into the gibbering, giggling schoolboy he was when he first fell in love with her. He spoke to the sensational star about her career and her new film, Far North.

Feature by Michael Lawson | 03 May 2009

Nearly twelve years ago, Pierce Brosnan (long before he displayed his licence to kill Abba songs) took his second bow as that Ian Fleming character in Tomorrow Never Dies. It went up against Titanic at the box office and lost, the closing credits song was better than the opening titles, it set new lows for product placement, and it had Teri Hatcher in it. But despite all this, the film went on to break Bond box office records and featured a car chase choreographed to the Propellerheads. Most significantly, however, it introduced western audiences to the wonders of Michelle Yeoh.

After studying ballet at the Royal Academy of Dance in London, Yeoh would later be crowned Miss Malaysia. Rather than going on to create world peace, she would begin a film career in Hong Kong, working alongside the likes of Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung and Sammo Hung. Despite having almost no martial arts experience, she would quickly establish herself as the queen of kung fu cinema, performing and choreographing many of her own stunts and fight scenes. That may not be something she’d throw herself into so readily now, though. When I asked her about filming Supercop (1992), in which she can be found clinging to the roof of a speeding bus, she said that the “petrified” look on her face was completely genuine.

“I remember when we went in to dub the film for the American market and I just thought, “Is that really me? I can’t actually believe I did that!” I must have been crazy back then”. Crazy, maybe, but this kind of multi-tasking, guerrilla approach to filmmaking has proved a fertile training ground for many an actor and director, hasn’t it? “Coming from a Hong Kong background, I’m used to shooting a certain way. Things are done much faster, there’s often no script and you’re basically shooting from the hip. Those factors make it unsettling, but also a lot of fun, so filming this movie was not so unusual for me”.

The movie in question is Far North, released on DVD this month. A strange and meditative picture, it tells the story of two women, seemingly mother and daughter, alone in the Arctic tundra (Yeoh and Michelle Krusiec of Saving Face). Yeoh’s character, Saiva, “has been cursed, shamed, and abandoned in the wilderness. So when she encounters this much younger woman, their bond is pure. There is real warmth and companionship between them – not just some childish, flaky kind of friendship – but one of emotional purity. It’s not a simple mother-daughter, young and old thing. They really maintain a pure devotion, because they cannot afford to have nothing”. This warm companionship begins to thaw, however, with the arrival of Sean Bean’s wandering soldier. To reveal much more would be disservicable, but the film’s opening sequence, which the actress describes as “bitter and stark”, sets the tone for the “mixture of beauty and horror” to come.

Far North is directed by Britain’s Asif Kapadia, whose BAFTA winning The Warrior was enough to convince Miss Yeoh to freeze in the North Pole when she could have been enjoying the perks of one of the many Hollywood blockbusters she now stars in. “While it’s great to make movies with directors like Rob Cohen (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) or Rob Marshall (Memoirs of A Geisha), it’s also great when someone like Asif, with all his passion and enthusiasm, comes along. He may not have the experience of those guys, he may have made only one movie: but what a movie!”.

The shoot itself was “cold and dark!” and Yeoh had no illusions about her star status. “Mother Nature is undeniably the star of our film, and on this film she was a diva! You felt so insignificant against it; one sudden blast of energy or wind could knock you flying! But I was happy to be there, playing this fascinating character, like nobody I’ve played before. As someone who is very cosmopolitan this was incredibly daunting, but I’m a big adventurer! I really only took my knapsack and filled it with books, but I didn’t even read the whole time I was there. I just sat in awe of the place”.

When Michelle Yeoh says she’s a big adventurer, you really believe it. Having conquered Asia, the actress would go onto Bond and beyond, garnering a BAFTA nomination for Ang Lee’s Oscar winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She has since split her time between east and west: “My thing is, where is the story coming from? Why does this story need to be told?”.

There are many stories being told in Hollywood, but not many of them require Asian actresses. Geisha and The Mummy have shown that audiences have a taste for all things eastern, but the star feels there is still progress to be made for Asian actors. “There’s so much room for improvement. I was lucky to get this big international role in the Bond movie, and what was really great about the role was that Wai Lin was on equal footing with James Bond, she wasn’t just decorative. It’s something we’re trying to push in Hollywood: we’re trying to show them that we’re not just Ming vases: we’re made of silk and steel! Finding good roles is always difficult - how many Suzie Wongs or Last Emperors did we have? - but we love the challenge, and it’s getting better”.

With her reputation as a serious actress now intact, what’s next for Michelle Yeoh? “I’ve just started a production company with Terence Chang, and we’re working on a martial arts project. I can’t wait to get in and kick butt again!” And neither can we.

Far North is out on DVD on 25 May.