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by Gabriel Chong@Fullerton Hotel | 1 October 2010

It has taken Michelle Yeoh ten years to return to the ‘wuxia’ genre, and she would have you know that it has been well worth the wait. A decade after the seminal “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, Michelle Yeoh’s comeback ‘wuxia’ film is the martial arts epic “Reign of Assassins”.

“Crouching Tiger was such a classic, so legendary, and everybody has put it on such a pedestal,” said Michelle. “So if I were to do another wuxia movie very soon, it would invite comparisons and it would be such a burden to everybody. I mean even ten years later, people will still compare this [Reign of Assassins] to it!”

Looking ever as glamorous in a dinner dress with gold-strapped heels, Michelle swung into town with director Su Chao-Pin and producer John Woo to promote their movie, which John Woo describes as a “different kind of wuxia film” with “a great human story… great characters and especially, a very strong female character”. It is a character which Michelle readily describes as “incredible”.

Michelle plays the deadly assassin Zeng Jing whose attempt to start a new life is thwarted by her former enemies. She thinks that Zeng Jing was a particularly challenging character for her. “She was a woman who was starting a new life, looking at the world with completely different eyes,” she said. “At the beginning, she was a cold hearted murderer and then when she changed her identity, she had to change her whole persona.”

Luckily for her, she had a great co-star in Korean actor Jung Woo-Sung, someone she describes as “the most gorgeous-looking and one of the best actors I have worked with in a long time”. She explained: “With actors, it doesn’t go one-way. You can’t do the scene by yourself. You need someone to reciprocate, to bounce off and you two [Su Chao-pin and John Woo] have found me a wonderful actor in Jung Woo-Sung.”

But unlike the dramatic scenes, Michelle did not have someone to help her through the action scenes. Known for performing the stunts in her movies by herself, the 48-year-old actress gamely did “95% of the action in this movie” according to John Woo. Considering how she could have easily stepped aside to let one of the “20-year-old stuntpeople Tung Wai had on set”, the achievement is even more admirable.

“I think to be able to do my own stunts is very magical… At the end of the day when you watch the final cut, you’ll say to yourself ‘wah, see how impressive I look!” She attributes her ability to do her own stunts to her experience with wirework. “The more you’ve done it before… It’s not about whether you have energy or the power to do it. It’s because you have the subtlety which comes with more experience.”

Asked whether she sustained any injuries from doing her own stunts, she said that no one working on this movie got hurt. She credits this to Tung Wai’s mantra- safety first. “A lot of times he would actually do the stunt himself first to make sure that it was safe,” she said. Even then, there was one person she said was nervous on the set- and that was John Woo when his daughter Angeles, who makes her screen debut in this movie, was up on the wire.

“To be fair to her, this was the first time that she was doing wirework and it can be quite scary because you cannot stop halfway. It will stop when it wants to stop. If you’re in midair, there are no brakes,” she explained. “And when Angeles was on the wire, we saw this daddy walking up and down and asking ‘are you sure this is safe?’ Tung Wai would ask ‘What is wrong? Why is John walking up and down?’ and then we saw Angeles up on the wire.”

Action was not the only major part of the movie- Michelle would have you know that there are also Buddhist philosophies incorporated into the movie, chief of which is that of forgiveness. She feels that it should not be a point that is lost on its audience, given its relevance to our daily lives. “Only with forgiveness can we learn to move on,” she said introspectively.
The inclusion of these themes was inspired by the early ‘wuxia’ films of the 70s and the 80s. According to director Su Chao-Pin, who also wrote the script for the movie, he would always think about what happened after the hero killed the enemy. “It just perpetuates a cycle of violence, because the enemy’s son would come back and kill the hero and the killing just goes on,” he said.

“The word ‘xia’ however implies a virtue, an ability to tell right from wrong. So I wanted this film to be able to put that across, and ultimately carry the message that forgiveness is better than revenge.” He said- wise words indeed from a director who also with this movie said that he has fulfilled his dream, in fact every male director’s dream according to Lee Ang, of making a martial arts movie.

It was also a dream for him to be able to work with John Woo and Michelle Yeoh on the movie- one he describes as a “walking encyclopaedia” of film and the other he praises as someone who personifies professionalism. “I think her professionalism is one big reason why she has been so successful in such a competitive environment,” he added.

John Woo too was extremely impressed by her dedication on the film, so much so that he is willing to call it- at the risk of his friendship with director Lee Ang, he jokes- the best performance of Michelle’s career, perhaps even better than “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. But since she has made her fans wait ten years for “Reign of Assassins”, does that mean it will take another ten years before she makes another ‘wuxia’ movie?

“I’m very selective about my films,” she said. “Every time I do a martial arts film, people will ask whether I want to do drama instead. And then when I do drama, people ask whether I’ll do another martial arts film… So when the time comes, it will come. But I hope it comes gradually.”
“Right now,” she added. “I’m having a great time.”

Our Interview with Director John Woo

Reign Of Assassins opens in theatres 7 October 2010

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