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Yeo Yann Yann paints an amusing picture of the first time she worked with Anthony Chen on a movie. The Malaysian actress was still in the process of transitioning her talents from theater to film when she found herself on the set of the short Ah Ma (2007) — and she found herself being told what to do by a man in uniform.
“Anthony was still doing his national service at the time and was wearing the uniform,” laughs Yann Yann at the memory. “I guess it helped make us follow his orders.”
It was the beginning of a working relationship that has brought global acclaim for them both, from Ah Ma’s Special Mention at Cannes — a first for a film from Singapore — and on to the Camera D’Or for their first full-length feature together, the 2013 drama Ilo Ilo, which trained its focus on the life of a domestic helper in Singapore.
Yann Yann picked up a Golden Horse Award — Chinese-language cinema’s Oscars equivalent — for her supporting role in that film and this past weekend she was up there on stage again in Taipei, adding a best actress award to her collection, reward for her remarkable, and remarkably human, efforts in Chen’s latest feature, Wet Season.
Chen believes the 42-year-old’s turn as a wife trapped by circumstance is the “performance of a lifetime” and the film has wowed audiences so far at festivals in Toronto and Pingyao, where it picked up the top honor for Chinese-language films and Yann Yann was also named best actress.
Chen has this past week brought Wet Season home to the Singapore International Film Festival, where Yann Yann has been handed the Inspiring Women in Film award.
Among it all, the actress somehow found time to take in a call from The Hollywood Reporter and yes, she says, her head is still spinning.
It looks and sounds like the past few months have been intense. How are you feeling about all the attention?
The response has been overwhelming. It’s been an exhilarating experience witnessing the reaction we have received all over the world. I think this woman Ling resonates with Asian families. I always see Asian women taking on all the burdens in the house. That definitely resonates. In Western cultures perhaps we see less characters like this. She takes on all these stresses but she still has this gentleness. The gentleness is still there. I think there would be more of a reaction out of her if she was a Western character. Even for myself, I would have just exploded if I went through what Ling does.
But the character remains driven by the search she is on for a sense of self. Is that what interested you about her?
Yes, that and her sense of giving. Even though she has given so much she doesn’t stop wanting to give. That’s the beauty of her — something maybe you couldn’t find in me!
Did you have to turn off aspects of yourself to play her?
I had to turn off everything. There was a long period of time when I would cry every night after we finished work. I didn’t really understand why at first but then I realized I was crying for her. It was a way of releasing the stress that had been building up inside of me because of her.
What kind of effect did that have on your family?
Oh, I sent my daughter to aunty and my mother because I knew that the shooting schedule would be tough. It ended up being a great choice as I think she had a great time. But I knew I would bring the stress home. I was leaving home at about 4 a.m. and returning at 11 p.m., and then there was all the crying. But there is no way as an actor you can’t invest in the character that way. My body is my tool. My body, my heart, my soul was invested in Ling.
Was it hard to leave her behind when the film was finished?
I really felt the need to go back to myself. When I was single I could do that by taking a trip or a crazy dance-off in a club would do. Now I am a mother, when I finish work, when I finish with a character I have to go back to being a mother and to taking care of my child. She has helped me stop thinking about myself. She helps pull me out of myself. An actor’s work is very self-centered. It’s always me, me, me. But a child won’t allow that. The focus is on her and that gives me time to rest. But it did take me about half a year. I even did a profile shoot for a magazine after we had finished and I looked at the photos and I said that’s not me, it’s still Ling. Even the photographer said, “It’s time for Yann Yann to come back.”
How might you describe the relationship you have built with Anthony Chen?
He’s such an interesting filmmaker. He likes to look at the nitty-gritty. He has a very strong vision and a very strong understanding of what he wants to do. Initially he thought I was very far away from this character. If Ling is Earth, then I am the sky. But we work very well together, even when it is a painful process, like it was with this character.
In both Wet Season and previously in his Ilo Ilo you play very recognizable, everyday characters. Is that what also draws you to working with him?
Yes, he observes the way human beings feel. That is one of his great strengths. I just hope he doesn’t wait another six years for his next film!
You appear in the HBO Asia series Invisible Stories next. What can you tell us about that?
Well I actually rejected it initially because I was exhausted. I was drained. I knew it was another emotion role and it would get me again. I knew it would hurt my heart. I told the director [Ler Jiyuan] I needed time but he came back a second time. Then I saw an interview with Meryl Streep where she talks about choosing characters who have no voice in society. About how actors can give these people a voice. That hit me. The woman I play — a single mother with an autistic son — is like that. So I rang the director and asked if the role was still available.
How much research went into the role?
I met a few mothers of autistic children. We talked about the problems they have. It is a great privilege actors have that they can walk into people’s lives. I think I am a very lucky woman.
What kind of effect do these experiences have on you?
I think the more you understand a character, the more you understand yourself. Every character leaves a lesson, or some color, in you. That is one of the most beautiful things about being an actor. It’s totally my belief that it can make you a better person. All these characters have made me a better human being.
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