There’s a jaunty rap at the door, and in bounds Michelle Yeoh. She’s on springs, despite just having arrived in London after stops in Paris, Taiwan and Hong Kong. But perhaps that’s not surprising: from her earliest action films, energy has always characterized her work.
We meet in an apartment where glossy copies of Variety magazine are strewn around us, their covers trumpeting potential Oscar contenders such as Frost/Nixon and The Reader. Yeoh, 46, is no stranger to that world. After impressing as the Bond girl Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997, she went on to star in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍), Ang Lee’s (李安) Oscar-winning martial-arts love story of 2000. It was one of the biggest non-English language hits of all time. But the film she has come to discuss is more mesmerizing than most of the titles likely to be vying for Hollywood doorstops, the mesmerizing Far North, directed by the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia and shot on Svalbard, in the Arctic Ocean above Norway, the most northern settlement in the world.
Yeoh plays Saiva, who passes her days in the icy wasteland hunting animals with her companion, Anja (Michelle Krusiec), and reflecting on a life that has been cursed ever since a shaman declared she was bad juju. Wandering the plains one day, who should she find curled up on the ice but Sean Bean. Many women would consider this a boon. But once Bean has thawed out, his presence jeopardizes the women’s relationship, with unsettling consequences.
“When I got the script,” Yeoh says, “I thought: either my agent wants to kill me or he’s telling me I need a challenge.” She gives an emphatic laugh. Like all her films, Far North was hugely physically demanding.
Yeoh, who made her name as an action star in Hong Kong in the early to mid 1990s, is probably the actor of her age most likely to be found begging a director to stuff the insurers and let her perform her own stunts. While Far North might seem worlds away from movies such as Police Story 3: Supercop (警察故事3:超級警察) (memorable for one particularly awesome motorcycle leap on to a moving train), what they have in common is the sheer stamina each has required of her. Indeed it was the harsh conditions and natural hazards that attracted her to Far North, she says. But then it’s probably a breeze to work under constant threat of polar bear attack when you’ve acted alongside Vin Diesel, as Yeoh did in Babylon AD.
“On Far North, we were always aware of being at the whim of Mother Nature,” she says. “She’s the biggest star in the film. But I had always longed to go to the North Pole, and the best time to go somewhere is when you’re working on a film. You can roll up your sleeves, get to know the people. That’s what I did — I spent time with the locals, I hung out with them, soaked them up, watched how they move and sit, with their legs slightly spread, their shoulders hunched. They don’t have big gestures but their movements are basic, refined, pure.”
She says that the
role itself took her “to dark places most of us can’t get our heads around. We were all living together on a boat, an ice breaker, with all this jaw-dropping scenery around us —
all those miles and miles of nothing.”
She says that last word as if she particularly savored it. You sense that Far North, like her role in Danny Boyle’s 2007 science-fiction thriller Sunshine, came as something of a tonic after the big-budget productions she’s done — from Tomorrow Never Dies to Memoirs of a Geisha (“Two-