|Posted by MYR on August 4, 2009 at 12:01 AM|
04 Aug 2009
Born in China, raised in the US and now an established name in Hong Kong, Michelle Ye is hardly your typical Chinese actress. After starring in a decade's worth of hugely successful TV series, including comedies, romances and even martial arts serials, Michelle signed with Media Asia and dived headlong into Hong Kong's film industry, and in just a couple of years has worked with some of the city's finest directors and gone head to head with a string of Mainland and Taiwanese wannabes. On the eve of VENGEANCE'S Hong Kong premiere, Michelle very graciously let me buy her lunch and we discussed working with Johnnie To, Alan Mak and Pang Ho Cheung, being in-competition at Cannes and the general state of the local industry. Beware - here be SPOILERS!
JM – OK, so let's talk about VENGEANCE. It seems like a logical progression from working with Alan Mak and Dante Lam, doing serious thrillers, a bit of horror to working with Johnnie To, arguably the biggest director working in Hong Kong today.
MY – Well, that's how it might appear from the outside, but the fact is Johnnie To approached me two years ago, it's just that the first project, ACCIDENT, has not been released yet. VENGEANCE came after that, so I officially started my movie career two years ago. MOONLIGHT IN TOKYO was just a tryout, because I went straight back to doing TV after that. Johnnie To is the guy who really helped me become a movie actress. When I was being passed over by other directors, he was the one who came to me, out of nowhere.
J – So, the set of a Johnnie To film must be a bit of an old boys' club, right? It's Wong Chau Sang, Lam Suet, Gordon Lam and Simon Yam, did you think about that going into the project? Thinking it's going to be me and all these heavyweight guys who are all really tight?
M – I was quite nervous at the beginning. My first day on set I didn't know what to do. I had no script before I arrived. I didn't know Johnnie To personally, he was the producer of Accident but we had never spoken personally, face to face about that project. He would just discuss his ideas with the director Cheang Pui Soi, and he'd tell us what to do. So I was in chaos, internally, on my first day. Johnnie To has his requirements and Wong Chau Sang and Lam Suet – they all have their requirements. They're all big brothers in this industry and I'm just like a little kid. What was great was how much they helped me, especially Wong Chau Sang. I was given all kinds of instructions, I was directed from everywhere – by Gordon Lam, Lam Suet, Wong Chau Sang and Johnnie To. I remember I had to cook in the first scene – I couldn't even do that. I had a baby on my back and I had to walk around and remember my lines and cook at the same time. It was kind of chaotic and Johnnie To had to come and show me how to do it. He's a great cook, you know.
J – So even though they are such a tight-knit group, they are quite welcoming?
M – Absolutely. Director To always treated us to good food on set and short working hours. He gives very precise instructions and he never yells at actors. He's also very humorous, but of course on-set he is very professional. But after work, at lunch or dinner he's a completely different person. He's very funny. At Cannes we had a lot of fun together. Actually one night while we were at the festival, Director To took us to this Vietnamese restaurant – it was Wong Chau Sang, the scriptwriter Wai Ka Fai, Mrs. To, Simon Yam and some other assistants – about ten of us. It was about midnight, after a party and we were so hungry! So we ate and it came time to pay the bill and we found out the restaurant didn't take Visa or MasterCard. They only took cash or American Express. Johnnie To had Visa, his wife had MasterCard, nobody had any cash on them, we were all in tuxedos and evening gowns. But luckily I had an AmEx card in my purse! I had never had the chance to treat them all before. They're the big bosses and I'm the only girl and also the youngest – so I saved them all from a night of washing dishes! Now they owe me hundreds of dinners because I saved them big face in front of the foreigners! (laughs)
J – Speaking of foreigners, what was it like working with Johnny Hallyday?
M – Oh, he is a gorgeous gentleman! I felt very sorry for him on set to begin with, because nobody talked to him. Only a few people could speak English and everyone was so busy. But he's a very generous guy, very gentle. We had one scene at the end of the movie where we say goodbye and the script said that we should hug. When we did it, he kissed me on my cheek – unrehearsed with the cameras rolling. I was a little bit shocked, being such an innocent Chinese girl. He changed the script! He gave me this really deep look and all of a sudden I'm welling up with tears, and it completely changed the outcome of the scene. When the director saw it on the monitors, he saw a spark and actually changed the ending of the movie because of that scene.
J – So tell me a little bit about your character and how she fits into the story.
M – I'm Wong Chau Sang's woman, it's quite ambiguous but you can tell there's something between them. There's a child and although it's not stated outright that it's his, you can tell. Johnnie To likes to tell relationships in a very subtle way, not to say, "I love you" directly. So Wong puts Johnny Hallyday in my place to live because he has lost his memory and needs to be taken care of. So I take care of him and after Wong Chau Sang and all his teammates die I take over the mission.
J – You probably shouldn't have told me that.
M – Ha ha, yeah maybe. So, I'm a small part in the movie, but quite important. I like that. But, check out at the beginning of the movie there's another role - Simon Yam's mistress - originally I was asked to play that part, but my company said no, not me. I would literally take any role Mr. To offers me. I'll be working with him again this year. But we can't talk about that yet.
J – So, let's talk about ACCIDENT then. Why has it taken so long?
M – Because Mr. To wants to make it as good as possible. The director, Cheang Pui Soi has made a lot of changes, we all have – we've been working together for two years now. My hairstyle has changed so many times! But, it has turned out to be a much more interesting story than it was originally. At the beginning it wasn't even a complete story, no one had a script, we were just being told what to do. It's more of an art house movie now.
J – I read that basically Louis Koo is an assassin who stages elaborate accidents.
M – Yeah, we're in a team together.
J – You're a killer too?
M – Oh damn, I shouldn't have told you that either. But let's talk about that when it comes out later. It's going to Venice, I hope I can go! They haven't made up my shooting schedule yet, but I should go.
J – Absolutely. It's another world stage event and people will be going "Oh look, it's that chick from Cannes."
M – No! They won't recognise me. When I was working on OUT OF LEASH (for director Dante Lam) these people from the Udine Festival came to the set. That morning they had watched Pang Ho Cheung's DREAM HOUSE and ACCIDENT, and they had seen VENGEANCE at Cannes and when they saw me with my short hair (Michelle now sports a rather fetching bob) they didn't recognise me at all!
J – So what did you think of Cannes? Is it as sleazy and superficial as they all say it is?
M – (Laughs) No, it definitely didn't feel like that. I spent most of my time in the theatres, watching movies. I saw about 17 movies altogether, most of them in the competition. But I was so stupid. I bought a pass before I went but I didn't need it. We were all given free passes because our film was in competition. So this time, when I go to Venice, I won't buy a pass ahead of time.
J – So what did you see?
M – I saw LOOKING FOR ERIC, I saw Jane Campion's new film…the poetry one. It's very similar to the Chinese love story, the Butterfly Lovers. I saw IN THE BEGINNING, that was very good, about a guy who comes out of prison and builds a highway out of nothing. Also I saw INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.
J – Now that's someone you should talk to, Tarantino loves his Asian actresses.
M – I was stupid I guess. I mean, I met him, he shook hands with me. He was sitting right in front of me at our premiere, laughing the loudest throughout the whole movie, applauding all the time. But yeah, at the after-party I didn't go talk to him. He invited me to the INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS party but I was too tired and I planned to get up early the next morning to watch movies. I'm not much of a party girl!
J – So what are you doing at the moment?
M - After I returned from Cannes, I decided to take French classes again. I'm also taking Tai Chi classes now. I've always liked Kung fu since back when I was doing TV.
J – How good did you get?
M – I'm pretty good, for an actress. I had really hardcore training for half a year. I studied dance when I was young, so I have a base of flexibility.
J – So what style of kung fu did you learn?
M – Oh, how do you say it in English? With the swords and also with the…knife? The big knives, one in each hand. In Chinese it's called "Seung Doh." It's like "double knife". I did that for a TV series, and my coach was Zhang Zi Yi's coach on CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. That's when I first realised how hard kung fu was.
J – So how much do you practice?
M – Not too often, but now I have to because the film I'm working on with Dante Lam, OUT OF LEASH…
J – UNLEASHED?
M – (Laughs) Yeah, it should be UNLEASHED, but it's OUT OF LEASH!
J – Is that a direct translation of the Chinese name?
M – No, the Chinese name is "FIRE DRAGON", but it was printed on the fliers when we were at Cannes. There were posters announcing "OUT OF LEASH." (laughs)
J – So that's with Leon Lai as well?
M – Yeah, in that one we have a lot of gunfire and explosions, so we have to do a lot of chasing and kung fu.
J – So what's the story of OUT OF LEASH?
M – Leon Lai is a cop whose wife has died recently in an accident. We have a couple of cases to solve and through the course of the film he explores his grief and inner turmoil.
J – And what's your character?
M – I'm his teammate. I'm the only female on his team. I am in love with him, but we never really talk about it. We try to avoid discussing love issues. I do save his life a couple of times! But we never get together. His wife has just died; it's too soon to talk about that.
J – So you're basically on set with Leon Lai every day?
M – Except for the last couple of days. I've been working on the Alan Mak movie because Leon is rehearsing for his concert.
J – So OUT OF LEASH is finished?
M – No, we're just on a short break.
J – So have you been actually shooting for the Alan Mak film?
M – Yeah, I'm actually doing both at the same time. This one's a comedy, it's very funny. Also we get to work indoors! (The weather has been alternating between sweltering heat and tropical storms). It's about gangsters. You know there was a really famous gangster movie ten years ago with Jordan Chan and Ekin Cheng, there's like seven episodes…
J – YOUNG AND DANGEROUS?
M – It's like a comedy remake of that. Jordan and Ekin are both back.
J – Does it have a name yet?
M – I don't know if it has an English name but in Chinese it is named after a song sung by Chow Yun Fat many years ago. I don't know the English name, but the song was written by a very famous Taiwanese composer, who also worked with Johnnie To, he did the music for VENGEANCE – Law Tai Yau. Anyway, that song is quite famous, called Fei Sa Fong Jung Joon – it means Sand Blowing in the Wind. Like a gangster, floating in the gang, I don't know. So that's the name of the movie. It's mainly focusing on Jordan Chan's character, who's already become the "big brother" of the gang. This will be my third movie with Alan Mak, actually we should say fourth, because during the course of this movie, he asked me to do the Cantonese dubbing for Zhang Jingchu's character in OVERHEARD.
J – I want to talk to you about this actually. Why aren't there any decent HK actresses working anymore? Why are they all from the Mainland or Taiwan?
M – Well, I'm a Hong Kong actress! I mean, I was born in the Mainland but I was trained in Hong Kong.
J – Which makes you…what?
M – (Laughing) I think I'm one-of-a-kind. But seriously, I don't think there are many people who fit the same description as me. I don't see anybody else who's doing what I'm doing.
J – Do you think TV was a big help?
M – Of course, and my background helped me to work in both languages, Mandarin and Cantonese. I don't think anyone is doing that. Like Zhang Jingchu, in OVERHEARD she has a lot of dialogue. In NIGHT AND FOG her character was from China, so speaking non-standard Cantonese is acceptable, but when you're playing a native Hong Kong girl then you need to speak like a native. But hey, when Alan Mak asked me to do it I said, "Hey, I'm not native Hong Kongese." They actually asked a professional voice artist to do it, but her voice was too…stiff? I don't know…it's not really acting, it sounds like a commercial. Especially when you're acting with Lau Ching Wan, his voice is very natural, it has a lot of expression in it. That's why they decided to ask me.
J – You make a good point. If you're playing a Hong Kong character, you should speak Cantonese. I was watching MURDERER the other day and Aaron Kwok's wife speaks Mandarin, everyone else speaks to her in Cantonese, no one mentions it and there's no reference to her being from Taiwan or wherever. Surely this is an issue that can't just keep going.
M – I know. I mean if we were a couple at home I have to speak the same language you speak, right? Whichever it is I'll have to try at least! It's impossible for a couple to one speak French and one speak English.
J – I have to ask. In MURDERER, surely when you read that ending you just thought "Sorry, but that's rubbish, that doesn't make any sense"?
M – I didn't choose to do that. The producer, Candy Leung, I worked with her on THE SNIPER too. She came to me and asked me to do that. She's also working with me on OUT OF LEASH – she's a friend. This is still the beginning of my movie career so most of the time I don't choose what I work on, it's my company, Media Asia, or the producers who choose for me.
J – Well, good for you then, as a Hong Kong actress, for winning roles when you're up against all these flavour-of-the-month Mainland and Taiwanese actresses who can't even speak the language.
M – I think where you have been trained, where you learn the most marks where you truly belong. If you ask me who I am, I'm Chinese, but as an actress, Hong Kong is definitely the place that has nourished me the most.
J – LADY COP AND PAPA CROOK is being cited in a lot of recent arguments and discussions about the influence of China on HK Cinema. Filmmakers are being forced to change their work in order to get past the Chinese censors. To what extent did you feel that while you were making the film and how conscious were the cast and crew of it during filming?
M – It's the whole environment, it's not the directors' fault. For any filmmaker in any market, if you want to get to the audience, you have to completely understand what they want to see or what the market needs. Besides your creativity and artistic expression, moviemaking is also a business, and we are trying to make a commercial movie that will be accepted by an audience. Unless you're trying only to please yourself or to scale some form of artistic height, then that's another story. I think for LADY COP it was a learning process for Hong Kong moviemakers. Feng Xiaogang's movies are huge in China, but they come to Hong Kong and nobody goes to see them. You know IF YOU ARE THE ONE, with Shu Qi and Ge You, that didn't perform at the box office here at all. But, they didn't make a big deal out of that because they weren't trying to tap into the HK market. For us, why do we make such a big deal? Because we want to get their money, we want our share of the market and we are not completely prepared or fully armed about their culture and their tastes. So it's great for someone like me who has a bit of understanding about both cultures. The producers should obviously understand ahead of time, but there aren't many such people in Hong Kong right now. We've only rejoined China for ten years. But there are people who know both cultures, who understand both markets and we just have to pick those people to do this kind of work. I can feel in my acting, in order to do that kind of movie, everyone from the director to the writers to the actors have to understand.
J – So you are tailoring your acting, you're consciously playing to a mainland Chinese audience?
M – Well it depends. If I am doing a film that I know is going to be mostly targeting a Mainland market I'll speak Mandarin myself, instead of letting someone else dub my part for me. I've realised that recently. Richie Ren advised me that I should do that, which makes sense. You want that massive audience to see the true you as much as you can.
J – Right, Hong Kong is famous for having sloppy dubbing in all its films and it pisses audiences off to watch that.
M – Well, sometimes you have to be dubbed because it has to be watched in both languages, but I will dub it myself if I can. If I act in Cantonese, like in this Young and Dangerous movie, I'll do the Mandarin dubbing myself. In OUT OF LEASH also, I've requested to do the dubbing myself. But for the projects I'm working on in China I'll speak in Mandarin, like the next thing I am doing, a TV series called THE LEGEND OF LADY YANG. Wong Chau Sang is going to play the emperor.
J – This is where you won an online poll to be cast.
M – Right, because of my work with TVB I built up a pretty big following in China. A lot of HK TV actors have big fan bases in China, just that they don't get to exploit it and do this kind of project because they don't speak Mandarin.
J – Can't they just get somebody to dub them?
M – They could do that but the other important reason is that you don't look like a mainlander. You just don't fit in. If you have ever watched a mainland TV series, they have a very different style of acting. You can distinguish between Hong Kongers and Mainlanders out on the street, right?
J – I'd say the same thing about Mainland actresses coming down here. They stick out a mile, and it's not just because they are speaking Mandarin.
M – Their acting is different, right? And they aren't accepted by the Hong Kong audience either. But, the truth of the matter is that the Hong Kong market is so small, all the filmmakers hear is that their move is going to be shown in China, where these actresses will not stick out, up there they'll be an asset.
J –Pang Ho Cheung has made a lot of very interesting films, he seems to be one of the few directors in Hong Kong who is not overly-concerned about whether or not his films will play well in China or not. He seems to make exactly what he wants to make. Also Josie Ho seems to be on her own mission, because she's got the money, to finance exactly the projects she wants, exactly the way she wants to do them and to use her English skills to go west rather than go north. Did you find it a particularly different experience working with them on DREAM HOUSE than working within the system?
M – Definitely. Pang Ho Cheung is a very good friend of mine so I can speak for him. You should not say that he is not concerned with what is going on in China. He is so smart, so knowledgeable, he knows exactly what is going on everywhere all the time. He really understands the industry, and if he chose to work within the system he would be one of the most successful directors in town. But he is so stubborn about what he wants to do, about his vision. He will do take after take until the shot is done perfectly, maybe wasting a lot of money and time in the process, he's that artistic type.
J – It's good to know there is still that kind of perfectionism around.
M – Absolutely. He's very precise about what he wants, unlike some people, who might claim to be artistic, but they don't know what they want and just do it over and over and nobody knows why. Pang is very good at communicating with people and explaining what he wants. And it means that when he wants to do the scenes over and over you're happy to do it. He has that power to put people together in the same direction and make everybody want to do their best work for him and for the movie. You'll see that passion when the film comes out, I'm sure.
J – So what's your role in DREAM HOUSE?
M – It's a very small part. I'm one of the first people Josie kills.
J – Why does she kill you?
M – You'll have to wait and see, I can't tell you. I don't want to spoil it, because the movie is all about why she's killing us.
J – OK, fine. Don't let me push you into making enemies with Josie Ho.
M – No no, it's not that, I just want you to enjoy the movie.
J – So how is it working with Josie, who's also the producer. That's a very popular thing to do in Hollywood, but doesn't really happen here.
M – Right, well no one really has the ability to do that over here. But she's very good at that, I think. Josie is a very smart and capable woman and working with her is very pleasant.
J – But it doesn't affect the way the set works at all?
M – No no, the set was completely Pang's.
J – So when can we see DREAM HOUSE?
M – I was told it will come out at Halloween, but I'm not sure. I know they've been trying to get it into some festivals but it's tough for horror movies, unless you make something like ANTICHRIST, which is really disgusting and controversial. I think by Western standards, Hong Kong horror movies are considered quite tame. But I'm sure in Hong Kong it will be a blast. Pang Ho Cheung has a lot of fans here.