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When you ask people at the ongoing 25th annual AFI Fest to name their highlights of the festival, one of the most common responses is Luc Besson‘s The Lady, which screened here as an AFI Centerpiece Gala selection on Friday, almost two months after its world premiere in rough-cut form at the Toronto International Film Festival (where I saw it and the Cohen Media Group secured its U.S. distribution rights).
The primary reason to see The Lady — a moving biopic of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader who lived under house arrest for 15 of the 21 years before her release in 2010, and who was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize (in absentia) “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” — is Michelle Yeoh, the 49-year-old Malaysian actress who gives the best performance of her career as Suu Kyi and now has an outside shot of snagging a best actress Oscar nod for her efforts.
As Yeoh and I discussed during an extensive interview in Los Angeles on Friday (see the top of this post), it’s somewhat ironic that she was cast as Suu Kyi, since the leader is famously serene, whereas the actress has, for most of her 27-year career, specialized in action.
Yeoh was an accomplished dancer and athlete before a back injury and a meddlesome mother led her to try modeling. She was entered into the Miss Malaysia contest, won, and consequently caught the eye of the great Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan, who invited her to appear with him in a commercial. Soon thereafter, she was cast in her first movie as a typical “damsel in distress,” but when her colleagues learned about her physical prowess she was given a chance to perform few stunts of her own. It quickly became clear that she was every bit as talented as her male counterparts — in many cases even more so — and she was, before long, the most popular and highest-paid female star of Hong Kong cinema. (In recent years, Rotten Tomatoes named her the best action heroine of all-time and Quentin Tarantino begged her for an audience.)
Given Yeoh’s striking beauty and talent, it was all but inevitable that Hollywood would eventually come calling. It was anything but inevitable, though, that it would happen in the way that it did, in the mid-1990s: with an offer to play a Bond girl opposite Pierce Brosnan‘s 007 in Roger Spottiswoode‘s Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). Yeoh, who is famously selective when it comes to choosing parts, took on this one only after she was assured that it would be a new kind of Bond girl — someone who is not just eye-candy, but who can mentally and physically go toe-to-toe with the secret agent. This Bond film, like all of those in the franchise, was a tremendous commercial success, but unlike many of the others it was particularly celebrated by women, who cheered Yeoh’s characterization.
The actress could have stayed in the U.S. to capitalize on her newfound international stardom — and, indeed, she received plenty of impressive offers, such as starring roles in The Matrix sequels. But she elected to take some time off — three years, to be precise — to wait for the right part. She chose wisely, because the film in which she eventually returned, Ang Lee‘s Chinese action-thriller Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), was a triumphant success, becoming the highest-grossing foreign language film in American history and earning 10 Oscar nominations, including one for best picture.
Since then, Yeoh has divided her time between Asian cinema and a select few American films. She looks half her age and still appears to be in tip-top shape, but, in recent years, has begun to shy away from the action genre in favor of character-focused dramas, such as Rob Marshall‘s Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and now The Lady. The latter film offered her a chance to not only play but meet her “hero,” Suu Kyi, and her performance raises the bar on an already impressive career even higher.
Based on her history, though, I wouldn’t put it past her to run, jump, and kick her way over it in the years to come.
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