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As the subject of sexual harassment in the entertainment has spread around the world, Michelle Yeoh has welcomed the global spread of the #MeToo movement.
Speaking at the International Film Festival & Awards Macao in early December, the Malaysian actress, who starred in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Lady, said the industry introspection since the Harvey Weinstein revelations is long overdue. “It is a part of the sustainable development goals. The empowerment of women, gender equality is all there, it’s something we need to work on. It’s something for the longest of time, it’s not been spoken out. It’s not been addressed in such a way. And times have changed. It’s a good thing,” Yeoh told The Hollywood Reporter.
One of the fiercest female action stars as well as one of the few Asian actresses to crossover into Hollywood, Yeoh has a martial arts background and has been playing strong women from the very beginning of her career, with such memorable roles as a kick-ass cop in the Hong Kong action film series Yes, Madam!/In the Line of Duty, as well playing a Bond girl who can throw a punch in Tomorrow Never Dies, a kung-fu master in Crouching Tiger and space pirate in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Given her extensive tough-girl roles, it is perhaps not surprising that she has never encountered any form of sexual harassment in Hollywood or in the Asian film industry. “I don’t think anyone in the right frame of mind would dare do that to me,” said Yeoh. “I think the thing is, [those men who harass or assault women] are predators, and they know their prey. They understand, and they cultivate in such a way, that’s because they are predators. They are on the hunt. They know how to put, and sometimes put more fragile women in a certain position.”
Yeoh put out a statement in October when the Weinstein allegations were first published by The New York Times and The New Yorker. “I knew he was a bully and not always honorable,” she said of the film mogul, with whom she worked on the Crouching Tiger franchise. “I wasn’t exposed to this side of him, otherwise he would have experienced the full effect of years of martial arts training,” she added.
While the exposés have had ramifications within and beyond the entertainment industry, with a series of former powerful men uncovered to be sexual predators and forced to step down, Yeoh says she has not personally known of similar cases in the Asian film industry. “I don’t think I would put up with that. If I know of a friend who would do something like that, that person would not be a friend,” she said. “I think you have to, at the end of the day, I think, know who you are, and be brave to stand up for yourself. First of all, you have to be strong. If you feel you’re physically weak, then scream — your voice is loud.”
With a career spanning three decades of almost 50 Chinese- and English-speaking films, Yeoh is using the Actress in Focus accolade she picked up at the Macau fest as a chance to look back at her experiences in the Asian and Hollywood film industry. The actress says she has been fortunate in being able to choose the roles she takes.
“I think it’s a choice to choose what you think you can give your best,” Yeoh said. “I don’t endorse movies that are demeaning to women, especially the cliché of what Asian women should be. Because if you do that, then you endorse the fact that their thinking is right. And forever people will continue with it, thinking, ‘Oh, Chinese women, subservient, they’d either work in Chinatown or if in America they’d be in the laundromat,’ so that’ll keep that impression very firmly in people’s minds.
“In a sense, because we, as Asian women, are so independent, so strong, so diversified, and in fact, that’s when I say, [Asian women] inspire me to play this kind of roles. Because I don’t make them up, I have to draw my inspiration,” she continued. “Because I want the little girls to see it, and I want the men to see that, that Asian women are like that, and not the clichés, the stereotypes.”
That said, Yeoh also sets her roles apart from herself: “I don’t mean that I’d only play strong women roles that are physically and mentally strong. As an actor, you should play all kinds of roles. You can be the antagonist; I don’t always want to be the ‘good guy.’ Because that’s my job as an actor, not as an activist. We have to separate the roles. If I play a serial killer, it doesn’t mean I’m a serial killer. It’s acting, it’s part of my job. If I can convince you that I’m a mean son of a bitch, then great, because that is my role to play. And it is very liberating and fun to be able to do things that you’re normally not. Otherwise, you’re just playing yourself.”
Yeoh will next be seen in the film adaptation of the global best-seller Crazy Rich Asians, which is scheduled to hit theaters in August.