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Thursday, August 1, 2002

Words of wisdom


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By Mathew Scott (Email: mathew.scott@scmp.com)

Photo: KY Cheng

THERE'S NO ESCAPING actress Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng. She seems to be everywhere you look these days. Her steely eyes glare at you from movie posters plastered all over the city. Her smile greets you from the pages of daily newspapers and beams out from television talk shows almost every hour.

The 39-year-old Malaysian-born actress is the talk of the town - and no wonder. After years in front of the camera, Yeoh has branched out. In her latest film, The Touch - which is released today - she has added the producer's role to that of star for the first time in her career.

It is a gamble for both the actress and her newly formed company, Mythical Films, which co-produced the movie with Han Entertainment. It's Yeoh's first role since the enormous critical acclaim she gained playing opposite Chow Yun-fat in director Ang Lee's Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). The Touch, which features an international cast brought together at a budget of about $150 million, was bought for United States distribution by Miramax Pictures as early as the script stage, so big things are expected.

''Every time you do a movie it's important for your career, your reputation,'' says Yeoh during a break in the conference room of Mythical Films' North Point office. ''A lot is riding on this, obviously, because it's the first time I have produced a film.

''You never know whether the subject matter will click with the audience at that particular time. I wish there was a formula, you know, that plus that equals success. So the only thing we can hope is that the audience knows that with this person or that company involved you are assured of quality, there is passion there and there is something original there.''

The rush to get The Touch ready for today's general release is evident all around the Mythical Films office. Boxes lie scattered around, workmen come and go in a seemingly constant stream and the conference-room table is littered with half-filled coffee cups, film posters and chairs arranged every which way.

Yeoh, though, doesn't seem affected by all the chaos around her. It is a calmness she has brought to roles throughout a career that has taken her from Hong Kong to Hollywood. It is also something she hopes to bring to the role of circus acrobat Yin in The Touch.

The film follows Yin as she is drawn towards a mysterious medallion by an ex-boyfriend (Ben Chaplin from The Thin Red Line). The medallion, in turn, leads her to Tibet, where it can allow access to a holy relic - and only Yin and her brother (Brandon Chang Tsoek-nam) have the necessary skills to get to it. The film also stars Australian Richard Roxburgh (Moulin Rouge and Mission Impossible 2).

The story was conceived by Yeoh and her partner, Thomas Chung Choi-sze. Yeoh says that after Crouching Tiger, she was keen to find a role that would free her emotions up but allow her to retain her natural strength. ''I didn't want to play a cop and I didn't want to play a character that was as serious as the one I played in Crouching Tiger. I thought that I'd had enough of that for a while. So this one I wanted to be a bit more fun loving.''

Wanting a more international flavour to the film, Yeoh and Chung originally tested the waters with American scriptwriters but found they didn't grab the ''essence of the Chinese culture''. So it was back to Hong Kong and to the French scriptwriting pair of Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud (co-writers of 1999's Running Out Of Time).

''We have invested more in this film but the risk is less because we are appealing to a larger audience,'' says Yeoh. ''Even before we started production of the movie we had US distribution rights, so in that way we started with more confidence.

''That all came just from the scripts and then the rest of it was my reputation, Thomas' reputation, [director] Peter's [Pau Tak-hei] reputation - that we would deliver something better than the script. So that was a great vote of confidence for us.''

The film is also a move of sorts for Pau, winner of the Oscar for his outstanding work behind the camera on Crouching Tiger. Pau had not directed in 10 years before he took on The Touch, but Yeoh says she knew exactly what she wanted.

''Thomas also had experience working with Peter and we were thinking about starting Mythical Films. This was before the Oscars, the awards and all that stuff,'' Yeoh explains. ''Peter is very clear when it comes to what he does. He won't just do things because it's a job; he's very passionate about his work.

''We knew it was going to involve action so the easiest thing would have been to hire an action director. But then you know just how the picture is going to be - it will be an 'action' movie. But with someone like Peter, you are able to get something that has the feel of an epic.''

There are plenty more projects in store for Mythical Films - the company has four scripts in the pipeline - but Yeoh is adamant she won't take the final step and head behind the camera. ''No, never,'' she says. ''It's not something I've ever had any interest in doing. I think I'm very honest with myself; I know what I like to do and what I don't want to do.

''As an actress you know there are limitations on what you can do creatively. So I thought how would I be able to expand on this and for me the natural course was to become a producer, where you have more access to things. The beauty about being a producer is you sit there and you explore ideas which become a passion which slowly becomes a reality.''

The Touch opens today.



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