Chinese-Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh first rose to prominence thanks to her martial arts prowess and ability to do her own stunts in the burgeoning Hong Kong action movie industry of the early 1990s. And since she pulled on her leather cat suit to take on the role of Bond girl Colonel Wai Lin in 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies, she has become a fixture in Hollywood, too, appearing in Mechanic: Resurrection, as Captain Philippa Georgiou in the rebooted Star Trek: Discovery and in a titillating cameo as Aleta Ogord in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, which hinted we'll be seeing plenty more of her in future.
For her next movie, however, Yeoh returns to Asia for the Singapore-set comedy Crazy Rich Asians, and she seems to have enjoyed going back to her roots, and indeed her native Malaysia, where much of the film was shot. "Our sets were unbelievable. Our amazing production designer Nelson Coates had such imagination, yet the sets were true to the essence of the place," Yeoh says. "When you read the book you wonder, 'where are they going to find a house like [Yeoh's character] Eleanor's in the story?' But they found one, with Carcosa Seri Negara, in Kuala Lumpur. Everything is lush in this film."
The book Yeoh refers to is Kevin Kwan's 2013 novel of the same name, on which Crazy Rich Asians is based. Kwan's novel tells the story of Rachel, a Chinese-American economics professor, played by Constance Wu, who travels to Singapore with her boyfriend, Nick Young (played by Henry Golding), to attend his best friend's wedding. On arrival, she discovers that her ordinary New York boyfriend is in fact a member of one of the richest families in Asia, has a dark secret to hide, and is on the "wanted" list of every eligible bachelorette in Singapore. Hilarity ensues.
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Yeoh says she’s a fan of the book, and describes it as a “perfect beach read”. When it came to filming the story, however, she admits that a little more work was required: “When you are doing a movie, you need more hooks, and the characters and their journeys should move you,” she says. “When I first spoke with Jon, I realised he was the right director for this film. He had a strong vision, and we immediately latched onto the traditions we have as Chinese people. He was born in the United States, but he had very traditional parents who helped him understand the values of being in an Asian family. There are many differences between Asians who grew up in Asia and those who grew up in the United States.”
Yeoh’s role in the tale is that of Young’s domineering mother, Eleanor, who Rachel soon discovers is lifted straight from the pages of the “mother-in-law-from-hell” textbook: “You look at Eleanor and you go ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t know what she is going to do to me,’” the actress laughs. “One character even says, ‘Auntie Eleanor is here,’ and you don’t even have to say anything because everybody is already scared!”
Despite Eleanor’s fearsome reputation, though, Yeoh insists that she is driven only by love for her son – and those cultural traditions. “It was important to me that you feel the love she has for her son Nick and understand why she’s so intimidating,” she says. “There comes this girl, Rachel, who Eleanor thinks is unsuitable for Nick because this young lady has no idea what it takes to be in a traditional Chinese family.
"Rachel has been brought up in America, where your upbringing is very different from how it is in Asia. In Asia, you do not answer back to your parents, and whatever they want you to do, you do. If your dad tells you the table is round, even if it’s square, you’ll nod your head and say, ‘Yes, it’s round.’ For me, it was important to show why Eleanor would have a negative reaction to Nick’s girlfriend. Eleanor sees her as someone who may cause Nick to undermine those values.”
In fact, although the relationship between Eleanor and Rachel is fraught with tension, there’s a strange love/hate angle to the pair’s connection. Perhaps because, we learn, Eleanor herself was not the first choice of her own, equally fearsome, mother-in-law for her dear son.
“We played a lot with Eleanor’s relationship with her own mother-in-law, and how Eleanor was not the chosen one in that arrangement, and how she had to compromise what she believed in, for the sake of her family,” she says. “In some respects, I almost see Eleanor looking at Rachel with sympathy. She feels sorry for her because you must sacrifice a lot to be a part of Eleanor’s family. But Rachel may not be ready to do that. So, Eleanor is looking for a way to give Rachel a way out of the relationship. We had fun exploring those ideas.”
The 56-year old Yeoh has already had a fantastically varied career, achieving the pinnacle of success both in Asia and Hollywood alike. With Crazy Rich Asians about to land in cinemas, Yeoh is now heading back to the States to resume work on Star Trek: Discovery. The actress admits that she's currently riding the crest of a wave, and she's clearly grateful for the hand life has dealt her: "I am on the plane constantly. I am very blessed," she says.
"Over the past year, I've done Crazy Rich Asians; a movie with Yuen Woo Ping, in China – a spin-off of [martial arts movie] Ip Man; and soon, I return to the world of Star Trek. Sometimes, I wonder, who am I now? I am Captain Philippa Georgiou. No, no, I am Eleanor Young. It's very, very exciting and I am very fortunate that it's happening before I get too old and have to be in a rocking chair."
Crazy Rich Asians is in cinemas across the UAE from Thursday.