Hubert Burda Media

BALANCING ACT

MICHELLE YEOH appeared on the first-ever cover of Prestige Hong Kong. Eight years later, writes MATHEW SCOTT, the actress recalls her remarkable career.

BALANCING ACT

IF THE KEY to a happy life is finding the right balance, Michelle Yeoh seems to have things pretty much worked out.

Today she's sitting back on a sofa surrounded by Richard Mille timepieces as she lends her fame to the brand's presence at the Watches & Wonders 2013 exhibition in Hong Kong.

Things seem to continue to roll along at a hectic pace for Yeoh, and she soon turns our attention to the new film studio she's involved in back home in Malaysia, plus the little matter of the much-anticipated (and long-awaited) sequel to the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [2000] which has had the Internet buzzing for the past 12 months as actual production appears to be coming closer to fruition.

But while there's a definite business side to the proceedings here today, the very first thing the 51-year-old actress offers up is the fact that Jackie Chan has just popped by for a chat, and she's wondering now just who else might grab the chance for a quick catch-up while she's in town.

It has been eight years since Yeoh graced the very first cover of Prestige Hong Kong – “So much has happened and we've both come so far,” she says – and she wants us to know that one of the biggest lessons she has learned is that you have to make the most of opportunities, as soon as they present themselves.

Your latest film – Final Recipe – just played at the San Sebastian Film Festival. What can you tell us about it?
The director, Gina Kim, is someone I really wanted to work with. I thought her last film – Never Forever [2007] – was fantastic. This one is about family and food, and what's more important than that? Especially for Asians – they're the two things that you can't get away from. So it was great to show the audience there this part of our lives here.

And you produced the film as well. How is that side of your career progressing?
Well, when I first did it – with Silver Hawk [2004] – it was just awful. It was during Sars and the city was on its knees. Everything was shut down and there was this constant fear of someone falling sick. It was a bad experience and I said to myself, “If I do this again I don't want to be the lead, as it takes away the joy of being an actor.”

What was the worst part of that experience for you?
You spend all the time doing crisis management and every bad thing that could happen on a film happened. I had to step back and reassess everything. So now I have a new company in Malaysia and it's all going great.

How has that been developing?
We have a new studio, we have support from the government and now we're trying to attract people to come down and work with us. It's also about giving something back to the industry and supporting the next generation. It's not just about being a talent agent, but about helping to create jobs for the industry – you can sign 50 people, but what are they going to do?

With the growing strength of the box office in Asia, has making films here become easier?
It's still the same. I don't think the process of making a good film ever gets easier. It's just as tough as it ever was. There's never any guarantee of what will be a success and no producer ever goes into a movie thinking, “This is going to be a loss.” What has happened is that movies have become too expensive to make and if you don't have a great opening weekend, then it's a total disaster.

So what sort of productions are you looking at?
You have to think more about the inbetweens. That's what I want to do. You have to look at the more art-house films and get back some level of sanity to making films.

How is the Chinese market influencing things?
China has been smart, because they're building the cinemas everywhere. Forget about the pirating and whatever, they're building places where people can go and see the movies, which they've never had before. For a filmmaker that's great news, and of course it's exactly what we want.

And more people are going to the cinema in China simply because they haven't really had the opportunity before.
Yes. Well, you can watch a film on your iPad or whatever, but that's not the real experience of cinema, of watching a movie. And in China people are discovering this for the very first time. It's an affordable entertainment for people of any age. It is a bonding experience. We have to remind people who might have forgotten about that too.

What stage are you at with the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel?
Well, Harvey [Weinstein] is working on it. I swear to God, this guy is relentless. When he wants something he gets it, and he wants this film to be made. I have great confidence in him so we'll wait and see what he gives us. He's seen what we can do and he wants to be part of that vision.

How do you look back at the experience – and the success – of that film?
It was such a labour of love, for all of us. At that time no one thought we would go far. Ang Lee was known for small films, but he never does things by half. He has passion and I met him in New York – this was even before I did Tomorrow Never Dies [1997]. He brought his family and he wanted to get a feel for what it would be like working with me.

How did he pitch the production?
He told me doing a martial-arts film had been his childhood dream. And while we met he was drawing a picture of the project, like a watercolour with words. I was hooked and didn't take on another project for two years while we waited to get production going, even though I was getting all these offers after Tomorrow Never Dies.

How careful have you been with your choices of roles?
I have tried to be careful. What interests me has changed. When I started I had no idea at all. I'd dabbled in theatre, in drama, at school in England, and I hated it. If you'd suggested to my lecturers that Michelle Yeoh would one day be an actor, they would have laughed and said, “I don't think that's going to happen.”

What was the main problem?
Well, I just didn't like to speak in front of people. And when I started acting in Hong Kong it was a baptism by fire. At that time [in the early 1980s] you really had no scripts. You had a general idea of what you were going to do, and you just had to go with it. I didn't speak very good Cantonese and I didn't read Chinese – not that there was a script. Only the director and the editor knew what was going on. So when you watched the film you could say, “Oh that's what was happening. Now I get it.” But it made me the actress I am today. It taught me to listen and to learn. The first thing you have to do is listen.

How much more comfortable are you as a performer now?
I think you never get to a stage when you relax. You're always finding out new things and pushing yourself forward. I've never been in this for the money, so I'm not forced to take roles because I need to pay the bills. I'm really blessed in that way as it has given me more stability. I can choose whose dreams or visions I can work on.

How has the stability in your life off-camera – and the relationship you're in with Jean Todt [former Ferrari CEO and now president of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile] – helped?
I swear to God, it has helped tremendously. When you're in doubt, with yourself or your partner, it affects you. You get distracted, you don't know what you're doing. With Jean, I don't want to say he completes me – I am who I am – but he accepts me for who I am. He loves me for that. He doesn't try to make me be what he thinks I should be. He doesn't try to change me and I would never try to change who he is either.

Does it help that he's also used to attention, to fame?
I'm very proud of who he is. When I'm with him, it's like he's a rock star. He's a legend in his role. I get forgotten when we're at motor events, so it's a lovely balance.

Do you think with relationships like yours it all comes down to timing?
Well, when you're younger, you're more highly strung and less understanding, and you always feel that you're right. With age and maturity, you grow. You make mistakes and learn. You bang your head against the wall five times and finally you realise you shouldn't do that. So I'm very happy. I've always been a person who doesn't want to live with regrets. If I've done something wrong I move on, I let go. Today I'm in a very happy place and I'm looking to the future. It's exciting.

+Prestige Hong Kong