Michelle Yeoh Web Theatre

Focus Online Interview: Michelle Yeoh

"On a par with Gandhi and Mandela"

Monday, May 16th, 2011
Original German article by Harald Pauli, Focus' editorial journalist
English translation: Joachim Schulz

The biopic about Burma's freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi has provided Michelle Yeoh with the role of her life. In this Focus Online interview Michelle Yeoh talks about how the two of them met.

Oslo 1991. The Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will receive the Nobel Prize for Peace - Michael, Alexander and Kim Aris are about to accept the award on behalf of a spouse and mother who is under house arrest in Rangoon. Several times already they have they approached the podium but Luc Besson is still seeking for a tracking shot emphasizing the scene adequately. We are in Vincennes, a suburb of Paris. The French director (Big Blue, Leon) shoots the last take of his biopic about Aung San Suu Kyi in the Cite nationale de l'histoire d'immigration (The National Museum for Immigration). The name of the film, refers to her name of honour in Asia: "The Lady". Luc Besson has filmed it with utmost secrecy on location in Bangkok in the previous months.

A petite woman with long dark hair, wearing black jeans and leather jacket, says "Hello".

Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Memoirs of a Geisha), who is a star beyond Asia and portrays Aung San Suu Kyi in "The Lady", has a spare day. So there is time to tell about this poignant story and the role of her life.

FOCUS Online: Ms Yeoh, you are a Malaysian who lives in Paris, Geneva and Hong Kong. Were you familiar with Aung San Suu Kyi's life when you were offered the role?

Yeoh: I knew about her, she is really well-known in Asia. I heard about her for the first time in 1988 as a folk heroine who defied the oppression of her people. Then in 1989 the focus on her seemed to fade a little due to events in China, in particular by the Tiananmen Square Massacre - especially since I am of Chinese decent and was living in Hong Kong at that time. Later on she was under house arrest and to be honest I had lost my focus on her a little, like probably many others who weren't directly involved in anything that concerned her or Burma. Thus I was indeed surprised by the script which was offered to me in 2007.

FOCUS Online: In what way?

Yeoh: Because I wasn't acquainted with this drama that has taken place behind closed doors. This tragic conflict between political commitment for her people and her love for her husband and her children. I was thinking: what a story, what potential! Why didn't I come across any of this myself and why has no other filmmaker taken interest yet?

FOCUS Online: And why is that?

Yeoh: Because you are certainly reluctant to intrude the set of private feelings of a living person. Yet I understood, also because of Luc's support and insight, that we eventually substantiate here for what Aung San Suu Kyi fights: freedom of expression. So we take the liberty to shoot a film about and for her. Thus it became kind of the role of my life!

FOCUS Online: What was your greatest challenge?

Yeoh: Let's go beyond "technical" accessories as they have to be provided for this role: similar looks, the same fashion of speech and moving, learning the Burmese language and studying all books and other sources on her. But how does this woman feel, being deprived from the public by house arrest? How does she think and feel, how would she react? The only close source was her son Kim, yet it had been ten years ago since he had been permitted to see her the last time. And the memories of her former companions and fellow students or those who have met her on diplomatic grounds at her husband's side are even older. In public she has always kept up the facade of her very moral education, but there have been very few intermediate tones. There are no home videos or Super 8 films showing her behavior in Oxford in company of her husband and children. Exploring who this woman was and is today, got an unbelievable trip through sets of feelings. Basically there are two ways to look at Aung San Suu Kyi. On one hand there is unrestricted admiration, love and respect for her, but on the other hand there is in the first place doubt and the impossibility to understand her actions - how could she sacrifice her own flesh and blood in that manner for a political cause?

Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady
(EuropaCorp / Left Bank Pictures / France 2 Cinema)

"Like a reunion with an older sister"

FOCUS Online: The main plot of this film is the dramatic conflict between commitment and egoism, politics and love, isn't it?

Yeoh: Yes, the film is about the years between 1988 and 1999, when she returned to Burma in order to care for her sick mother and when she becomes an icon for the people's resistance. In 1997 her husband fell ill with cancer and wanted to see her a last time but doesn't get a visit. The regime allows her to leave the country but being afraid not to be allowed to return home, she stays. He died in 1999, having seen her for the last time in 1995 while she, separated from her children, keeps her role as opposition leader in Burma,

FOCUS Online: And how did you the get closer to this shielded woman?

Yeoh: That was taken care of in particular by the script. Andy and Rebecca Harris have already been committed to this project for a rather long time. They have spoken to her children and to many opposition members inside and outside Burma, who either were or still are close to her. By the way, one of them even appears in the film.

FOCUS Online: In the end it is all about a very private, human drama and a love story. What did Aung San Suu Kyi think about that?

Yeoh: We never spoke about the film. With such a biographical project you have only two options anyway: either you are involved beginning with day one, controlling everything for correctness, which was here impossible, or you watch it from a distance and accept a looming surprise.

FOCUS Online: On the very same day when the shooting in Thailand was accomplished, news broke that Suu Kyi's house arrest had been lifted.

Yeoh: Yes, that was great news. And when I met her some days later in Rangoon, it felt like a reunion with an older sister. She knew a little about me and my work, because she had been provided with some of my films. And I knew her house already very well because we had rebuilt it 1:1 in Bangkok, based on information from her friends.

FOCUS Online: You were the only one to get a Visa. Do you have an explanation?

Yeoh: Of course there is no official statement. Luc Besson and his wife, the film's producers, didn't get a Visa after all. Perhaps it has something to do with me being Malaysian and that our government has never interfered with Burma's internal politics and has hereby so-to-say recognized the sovereignty of this country and its regime. Also I am somebody who is known in Burma. I realized that immediately when I arrived. But still I only believed that they would really let me in once the civil servant had sealed my passport in an emphatic manner. At the end of the day I regard this as a positive sign, indicating a certain opening, a gesture of willingness to be open to things about to come.

FOCUS Online: Have you ever wondered whether Aung San Suu Kyi might find it possibly a little alienating to be portrayed by you, since in Asia you have a reputation as "Queen of Martial Arts"?

Yeoh: Not at all. She hardly knew me for that anyway because she doesn't watch many movies. She prefers to read. But her environment had told her who I am. And when she met me the reason for selecting me was clear to her all the same. She said: "You really look like me." I referred only once to the film, asking her if she anxious that it might do her damage. "Certainly not", she said simply. And it has to be said that it is after all only about things that have happened and can't be denied.

FOCUS Online: How did your meeting go?

Yeoh: I was led to the library by her brother and she entered the room very unpretentious, just saying "Oh, there you are. How do you do? Have you already eaten something?" It was like visiting a friend's mother, she embraces you cordially. So that all your nervousness is taken from you. While embracing me she said: "But you are really thin!" - Then me: "Yes, I had to portray you!" There was an immediate relaxed energy and courtesy in the air. She said she was a little coarse, whereupon I just said: "Of course, all the interviews and speeches you had to give recently!" Her son Kim was also present and we had a completely unrestrained conversation on day-to-day topics such as a cat that had been given to her as a gift by a guest and that now explored the house.

FOCUS Online: Can you understand her decision?

Yeoh: It was always clear to me that this couldn't be about a judgment. In the beginning I had it a little hard but having studied her biography it could all be understood. When I asked her during the meeting how much it had hurt her to pass her children on, she said: "But they live and they had it good. It could have become worse..." That is a very Buddhist way of seeing things. Experience epiphany by suffering. And the experience to speak in front of half a million people who all put their hopes on you mustn't be underestimated either.

FOCUS Online: Would you put her on par with Gandhi and Mandela?

Yeoh: It is not for me to do that, she is there anyway, whereas she doesn't see herself that way at all because she is much too modest.

Original article in German
English translation by Joachim Schulz
Edited by Dean & Jane