Michelle Yeoh discusses her NZ-shot Crouching Tiger sequel experience
Destiny drew legendary Chinese-Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh to our fair isles.
Actually, it was a project subtitled Sword of Destiny, a sequel to the film that brought her to worldwide attention back at the turn of the century.
A heady mix of western-style period drama, eastern mysticism and breathtaking, seemingly effortless wire work, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stunned global audiences with its poetic lyricism and powerful storytelling, winning the award for best foreign language film at both the Oscars and Baftas in 2001.
It inspired countless imitators, both from Hollywood and Asia, but it's taken a decade-and-a-half for a sequel to come to fruition. And nobody could have imagined it would be told entirely in English, backed by an "internet television" company (Netflix) and mostly shot in that most eastern of countries – New Zealand.
"We were quite surprised," admits returning Crouching Tiger star Michelle Yeoh, on the phone from Paris, of the move south. "What is an ancient Chinese period drama doing filming there? What if we run out of lamps? You can't just run out to the corner store and get one. But they shipped in like three tonnes of furniture and nick-nacks – everything they could think of that we might have needed.
"In the end, filming in New Zealand was the best choice because it brought us to the most beautiful place."
So did the 53-year-old actress get an opportunity to tour around the country during her three-and-a-half month stay here in the middle of 2014? "I was very lucky to meet a good friend of mine, Cliff Curtis – we worked together on Sunshine [Danny Boyle's 2007 sci-fi tale]. He introduced me to Pania from the Maori Tourist Board who helped organise a trip down to Queenstown, including booking a helicopter so I could jump out at the top of a mountain. I had a really fantastic time."
Yeoh, who has also had starring roles in Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and period drama Memoirs of a Geisha, also pays tribute to the film's Kiwi crew. "We had incredible behind-the-scenes people, from the set designer to the costume designer – Ngila Dickson [who won an Oscar for her work on the final Lord of the Rings film]. She's not just a phenomenal talent, but a beautiful person. Every time I'd come in try on a new set of costumes, I'd hear her talk about why she came up with the different colours for different characters. I think that was very important and she had it all planned and did so much research. It was wonderful to work with someone who was so passionate and also so respective of our culture."
Set almost two decades after the original tale, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny sees Yeoh's lovelorn warrior Shu Lien forced back into the fray when she discovers the sword Green Destiny is under threat again. The evil Lord Hades (Jason Scott Lee) has his eye on that prize and a call for reinforcements brings Shu Lien back into the orbit of a former fiancé she thought long dead.
For her own part, Yeoh says it was opportunity to play the character again that drew her back. "The role was so special to start off with, she was so representative of traditional Chinese women, and a warrior. And I wanted to know where the character had gone after all the things that had happened to her. Did she find enlightenment? Find peace herself?
"Then of course, there was the opportunity to work with Master Yuen Woo Ping (Kill Bill, Drunken Master), the grandmaster of the martial arts world."
Yeoh says that combined interest and excitement made it easy for her to pick up the character again. "I know her so well and I knew the essence, the spirit of the first one. What I like about this movie is that we now bring you the martial arts world. In the first one, we only talked about it, trying to keep Zhang Ziyi's character away from it, because it's full of danger and so many wrong emotions. Here, we bring you to that world, bring you to the depths of it, show you what the warriors are up against and why they would risk their own lives for a code of morals, ethics, loyalty and honour. It's a dark, interesting world and I think Master Yuen Woo Ping brings the audience to the heart of that."
Also helping Yeoh to get her Crouching Tiger groove back was the fact the story was this time in English. "It was a relief, because my Mandarin sucks – that's the truth. We're hoping though that the story just transcends languages. If you watch the series Marco Polo [a Netflix stablemate], you'll notice that it's not in Italian, it's in English. Nowadays, audiences come to terms with it, as long as it is well written and contains in essence the language it is supposed to be."
However, she's aware that in China, this film will be redubbed into Mandarin. "Whether that's in my own voice or not, I'm not sure. At least this time I could read my own script – that really helped."
Script-reading troubles aside, while Yeoh admits she had no idea how big the original film would be, she always knew director Ang Lee's conceit of "Sense and Sensibility" with martial arts would strike a chord.
"It was poetry in motion and it was really about love – unrequited love. It was an introduction to a different world that our western friends are not used to, but like Brokeback Mountain, audiences just saw a beautiful love story – rather than a martial arts movie or a tale of two guys. I think it was important that he introduced that world in that way to western audiences. In the east, we don't need any explanation as to why people are able to run across rooftops or transcend and defy gravity by standing on top of a bamboo grove, but some of that can be too much for the logical 'western' mind.
"And now that he's shown that world, now is the time for the rest of the world to find out what the martial arts world, that we kept talking about, is all about."
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny begins streaming on Netflix on February 26.