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WEB-ONLY EXCLUSIVE
'It's Emotional and Dramatic'
Michelle Yeoh is no stranger to action-packed films, but the going was tough in Ang Lee's surefire hit
By STEPHEN SHORT

Malaysian-born Michelle Yeoh plays a swordswoman in famed Taiwanese director Ang Lee's latest film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The veteran actress -- a former Miss Malaysia (1983) and a 'Bond girl' in Tomorrow Never Dies (1987) -- spoke to TIME Asia reporter Stephen Short about the physical and mental rigor of making the movie, and her future plans.

TIME: This must have been the toughest movie you ever made? Am I correct?
Yeoh:
Yes, it's been very traumatic because of the [serious knee] injury I suffered. I had to go to the States and have my knee operated on, and the doctor wouldn't let me leave for a month. I then had to have therapy to learn how to walk again, using crutches and knee braces.

TIME: Are you pleased with your scenes with Chow Yun-fat?
Yeoh:
I've waited 15 years to work with this guy. [Director] Ang Lee called us over after the first shot we did together and said, "look at you two." There was chemistry and the scenes were really, really intense. The film has many elements but none overpower the other. Usually in martial arts films the action is the focus, but in this movie there is such a balance. It's emotional, it's dramatic, it transcends everything.

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The Hong Kong film director on sex, violence and leading ladies

TIME: How did you find having to speak Mandarin?
Yeoh:
I spent so much time practicing. I don't think I studied this hard at school, even for exams. I was at such a disadvantage -- I don't even read Chinese. So I had a dialogue coach with me every day for three hours. Fortunately Ang had the script down pretty much, so I would say to him, 'you're not allowed to change anything. I need at least three days before that scene.' I spent a lot of the time remembering the different sounds. It's like learning Shakespeare; every single word needs the right intonation. I had to say all these things that I had never heard of in my entire life, so I spent a lot of time just memorizing, in the car, talking during meals and so on.

TIME: It must have been tough to put any feeling into it?
Yeoh:
You just don't have the right timing. In English I know where to pause, I know what to stress. The first scenes I did, Ang would stand behind the camera and gesture for me to either speed up, slow down, go up, go down. It looked ridiculous, and Ang wanted us to speak pretty fast. Rhythm is everything in the Mandarin language -- and it's not even my third language. Cantonese is definitely easier. At the beginning of the film I was awful. But by the end, conversation-wise, I knew how and what to intonate. Doing the dubbing scenes six months later, however, I still couldn't get the intonation right. Ang's got a perfect ear for it. I'd deliver sixteen lines in a speech, get one word slightly wrong, and Ang would say, 'no, let's do it all again.' There were so many times when I thought, 'I'm so stupid, why are you using me.' It was good character-building.

TIME: Do you find Mandarin a romantic language?
Yeoh:
Very, but only if it's spoken properly, not the way we butchered it. Actually when I saw the movie for the first time, I was even impressed with myself.

TIME: How is Ang to work with? Is he dictatorial?
Yeoh:
No, not at all. He has a very patient and gentle attitude of explaining everything, every gesture, every move. You'd ask him one question about the character and how to play it and you'd be sitting there for two hours listening to him talk about all these different aspects. He is great to work with that way. He's so focused, so passionate about what he's doing. He specifically tells you what he wants. He's not a director who says thing like, 'try this' or 'try that', until you've got it. When Ang comes up after a shot and says, 'good take,' you know he really means it. He is also very emotional, especially during the death scene. He kept coming over and telling me to do different things, to speak more softly, and I noticed that he was red-eyed and teary. I could barely look at him. He gets completely involved, and feels for each character in that sense. He has a vision, and the reason I chose to do this film was because I could see his dream.

 SPECIAL: WEB FEATURE
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON
Cover: Instant Classic
Taiwan filmmaker Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not only a star- studded epic, but also a rule- bending masterpiece that weds martial arts with sense and sensibility
All Aboard for the Zhang High Express: Actress Zhang Ziyi sizzles
'I Felt Like a Mouse and Ang Lee was a Lion': Zhang Ziyi on acting, stardom and Richard Gere in this web-only exclusive interview
'It's Emotional and Dramatic': Michelle Yeoh is no stranger to action-packed films, but the going was tough in Ang Lee's surefire hit

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TIME: Did you fake the crying?
Yeoh:
No. If you feel the character, then it's not a problem. The scene -- from the time you know Chow Yun-fat's going to die till his death -- took three days to shoot. Ang wanted to get that sense of loss, that sense of loneliness in my character and so the floodgates just opened as a result.

TIME: You've been laying low, what have you been doing?
Yeoh:
We [my production company] have had a lot of offers, but I decided as an actor that I needed to take on projects that inspire me. The roles didn't get me excited. Ang spoke to me just after the James Bond movie, saying he wanted to do Sense and Sensibility with martial arts. So I started work on this project way before we ever started filming it. I went everywhere with Ang and it was a great learning experience to visit all the locations. At the moment I'm not sure that I'm ready to wear two hats. I don't want to put down my action skills, but with my own production company I can do both. We're starting to shoot a movie called Touch, and we'll do some shooting in Venice, probably in November.

TIME: Who is 'hot' in Hong Kong? Who would you like to be talking to?
Yeoh:
There are a few. Nicholas Tse is one. He has great stage and film presence, and a great voice. Daniel Wu, Stephen Fung are others We need characters like that, new people to fill up the screen. We can't fill the screen with fuddy-duddies.

TIME: Females, perhaps?
Yeoh:
People in front of the camera can be packaged in certain ways. But what is most important is who is behind the camera. We need the next generation of screenwriters and directors. If we don't, then it all looks very bleak. We also need government support. And it doesn't matter where people are coming from, let's just produce good quality films. Let's do it and do it properly. We need people who are passionate.

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