Directed by Master Yuen Woo-Ping and written by John Fusco, the Netflix feature film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny tells an epic story of lost love, young love, a legendary sword and one last opportunity at redemption. Continuing the themes and traditions that were established in the original film, it’s an epic martial arts battle between good and evil, full of breathtaking action, that will decide the fate of the Martial World. The film stars Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Harry Shum Jr, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Jason Scott Lee, Roger Yuan and Eugenia Yuan.
At the film’s press day, actress Michelle Yeoh spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about returning to her Crouching Tiger role, why she thinks the distance from the original actually works to this film’s benefit, the trick to making the fight scenes look so graceful, and working with her new co-stars. She also talked about what she looks for in a project and how much fun it was to play the baddie on the last season of the Cinemax series Strike Back.
Collider: It was great to see you return to this character, after seeing you be so devilishly evil on the last season of Strike Back.
MICHELLE YEOH: That was so much fun. You know what? I couldn’t believe it! Andy Harries, the executive producer, was the producer for The Lady, so we’ve known each other and worked very closely. So, he called me and said, “Michelle, I have this really, really great character for you, and you’re perfect! She’s the most evil!” I said, “What? You have the most evil character, and the first thing you think of is me? Wow, that’s great!” But it’s true, and I had so much fun. Was she really evil? She was brought up and trained to think like that. She was conditioned to be like that. She thought she was being patriotic, but she was so radical. It was just so much fun. At first, I thought they would have wanted me to do more action, but it was so cool. She just didn’t have to. She made the guys go do all of the dirty work.
How did you enjoy the experience of working with that cast?
YEOH: It was such a joy, working with Robson Green and the two boys, Sully and Philip. It was highly-charged testosterone, but it was fun. It was great fun to do. I had so much fun on that.
When you originally made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, did you have any idea that would be a character that you’d revisit and that it would be so many years later?
YEOH: No. I don’t think anybody ever dreamed that it would be that great of a success with that kind of box office. I know for a fact that when Ang Lee set out to make the movie, it was a dream for him. The first thing he said to me was, “I want to do Sense and Sensibility with martial arts.” I know Sense and Sensibility and I know martial arts, and I was like, “Yes! Wow! Why hasn’t someone thought of that before?” But, Ang has such a beautiful way of storytelling. It was a way to tell this genre of film that, as Asians, is a part of our culture. We see it all the time and understand it very well, but he told it in such a way that the rest of the world was able to embrace it. If he didn’t tell it like that, could you imagine if we had started off with all of these people flying into the air? I think it would have been a culture shock. People would have been like, “Is this Peter Pan? What’s going on?!” But the way he explained the history, the tradition, the values and the code, and then you started going into that world that you didn’t know, the next thing you knew, you were going, “I want to be just like him!” When the action actually happened, it took your breath away.
When it was such a huge success, the first thing that went through everybody’s mind was, “What’s the next story? When is the sequel? Let’s get it out there.” But I’m glad that it took this time to breathe because, at that point, that was the end of that story. The hero died and she was left devastated. That was her closure, at that point. Now, it’s 17 years down the road and she has attained her enlightenment that she wished for herself before. She has come with peace in her heart. But as duty calls, which is so much a part of this martial arts world, she’s bound by the code of ethics, honor, tradition and especially promises. She had a great love with Li Mu Bai, but it will always be an unrequited love because she was married to someone else, even though he was dead. They both strived to find that enlightenment. To attain that would have been the ultimate for a warrior, and that was what they were. They were martial arts warriors.
So, it’s the role, but the role has moved on 20 years. It’s a different role in a different story. This story now brings her straight to the martial arts world that you only heard about in the past. In this film, Master Yuen Woo-Ping takes you to that world of treachery, betrayal, revenge and vengeance, and he introduces you to the other warriors, who are willing to lay down their lives, not for money but for the code of honor. So, it’s a completely different story. In fact, that was one of the reasons it was captivating for me. It takes you on a different journey, altogether.
The fight scenes in these films are so graceful and beautiful to watch. Are there tricks to making it all look so good?
YEOH: It’s like ballet, when you see the ballerinas and they’re all up on their tiptoes. If you were ever a ballerina, you know the pain, just to be able to look like it’s all so light, but when they take off their shoes, it’s all bloody. I have the worst ballet feet. The illusion is that, when they are up there, you feel that they are lightness. It’s the same for especially the wire work. You are out of control. You have absolutely no control. You cannot stop. The only people that can stop you are the few guys that are pulling you up and letting you down. If they decide to pull you up, tie you up and go for lunch, you’re stuck up there. The thing is that it all comes with experience. When they are letting you down, that’s the key element. They have to let you down fast enough, so that it doesn’t look like you’re hanging in mid-air going, “Come on, guys, put me down!” They have to drop you, so that it’s your own ability. When you jump, it’s your landing that counts. It’s very discombobulating. You’re up in the air, and then you’re suddenly on the ground. But, it comes with experience. Holding yourself up involves the core. That’s why your back and stomach have to be very strong. You have to work against the way they’re pulling you. When they pull you, you have to resist. That’s the beauty about wire work.
As someone who has that experience, was it fun to watch the new cast members on set?
YEOH: They were really bad, but I’ve been there before. I actually worry because I understand what can go wrong. If they drop you when you’re not ready, or your legs are not strong enough, you can buckle and hurt yourself. Fortunately, Master Yuen would not let anybody go on the wire unless he was very confident that they were able to have that control. So, Natasha [Liu Bordizzo] and Harry [Shum Jr.] had much more serious training, just to feel the nuances. It’s not just them, but the stunt people also have to understand what they are capable of. I’ve been training with them and working with them for so many years, and that’s important because when they have confidence in what you can do, than you can do a lot more and it’s a lot better. If they feel like someone can’t do it, they will never be bold enough to just let you drop like that because you will hurt yourself. It was harder for Natasha and Harry because they had to come to terms with working with wires. And then, you have a sword and all of these things coming at you. It’s not easy. You always have to look good. You know the moves because it’s all choreographed, but you have to block it like you didn’t know.
What was it like to work with Natasha Liu Bordizzo on what was her first acting job in her first film?
YEOH: We became great friends on the set. She’s a hard worker who’s willing to learn. Because we’ve had the experience, we can make your life a little bit easier when we impart that knowledge. I can tell her how to look better, which will make me look better. That’s very important because I had a lot of scenes with her. We needed to have that confidence and comradery with each other.
How was it to add that extra layer of having Harry Shum Jr. locked in a cage during some of your scenes?
YEOH: I loved that! I think that was the beauty of my character. She knew there was something going on with those two, and the best way to deal with it was to put them together. The more time they spend together, the more time they’ll reveal who they are. He can’t get out of his cage. He’s stuck there. And then, to watch someone train, it was very frustrating for her. When you’re starting to learn, that’s when you can’t do it and you look bad. You can see her frustration. But as the wise one who puts them in these situations where they vent, when they vent, they show all of their weak points. It was so fun. I loved having those scenes with them.
At this point in your career, what do you look for in a project?
YEOH: For me, I think it’s more roles that I have not ventured into. When I did Strike Back, I received an email from a good friend that was just one sentence, “Are you a baddie?!” They were in shock. I’m an actress, and that’s what I love to be able to do. It’s actually very liberating. I was just watching Fargo with Billy Bob Thornton and because he’s such a good actor, you don’t go away thinking, “Oh, he was a bad person,” just because he acted like a villain in that role. Some villain roles are just so juicy to play. For me, that’s what I look for. It’s very important that I’m approaching a character that I’ve either not played before, or I can give it a different take. And the director is very important. I believe that the director is really the soul. It is a collaborative effort, but the director is the one who needs to have that vision. It could be a great script, but it starts from there. You need to have good material, at least, but if you don’t have someone with vision, it’s just words.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is available at Netflix and in select IMAX theaters on February 26th.