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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A New Breed of Bond Girl

Another top Asian star heads for Hollywood

By Alexandra A. Seno


SAY THE WORDS "BOND girl" and what comes to mind? Jill Masterson in 1964's Goldfinger wearing nothing but a coat of gold paint? Ursula Andres in 1962's Dr. No emerging from the ocean in four triangles of fabric meant to pass for a swimsuit? Come 1997's cinematic installment of the 007 action series, "Bond girl" should take on new meaning. Her persona, at least, is clearly evolving.

Last month, Hollywood's MGM studio announced that Michelle Yeoh, Hong Kong's top female action star, will become the first Chinese Bond love interest, starring opposite Britain's Pierce Brosnan. The first and only other Asian Bond girl was "Kissy Suzuki," played by Japan's Hama Mie, in 1967's You Only Live Twice.

But given that Yeoh, 33, is better known for her swift kung fu kicks than her deft choice of lipstick shades, no doubt James Bond will think twice before trying to make a move on his new leading lady. "I'm going to be anything but ornamental," says Yeoh, whose speech bears a slight British accent. "I've made it clear I won't do nudity. I might be a little sexy but I am supposed to be more like Bond's sidekick."

At least she hopes so. The multi-millon dollar project, which bears the working title "Bond 18," has no final script and no complete cast yet. But while Yeoh doesn't have much control over the script, "I am being consulted on the character and costumes," she says. Yeoh will be in London by April to begin filming; then the production moves to locations in Europe and Asia.

"Bond 18," which is due in cinemas for a Christmas 1997 release, follows 1995's hugely successful Goldeneye, which brought in $350 million internationally for the ailing MGM and revived the Bond franchise. "It's a good move for Michelle to go to Hollywood," says Hong Kong film reviewer Paul Fonoroff, who points to the fact that the territory's industry is in the doldrums. "Besides," he adds, "everybody watches Bond films."

Although Yeoh has been a star in Asia for the last decade, she says she really had to work for her upcoming role. After meeting with director Roger Spottiswoode several times, Yeoh was then asked to do a screen test with Brosnan. "He wanted to check our chemistry," Yeoh says. Fireworks did go off between the two, she says, despite the fact that the whole process felt like "sitting for a school exam."

The next 007 flick will also mark Yeoh's debut in a full-length international feature. She will then join the ranks of other Hong Kong film stars and directors, like Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan and John Woo, for whom Hollywood has come a-calling with the lure of projects with higher production values, better scripts, global audiences and, oh yes, bigger pay checks. "Fortunately for me, the tendency now is to look toward the East," says Yeoh who, with an asking price of $582,000, ranks as one of the highest- paid Chinese actresses.

Yeoh, who was born in Ipoh, Malaysia, always planned for a career under the spotlight. She graduated from England's Royal Academy of Dance with a B.A. in choreography and drama. But a serious spinal injury put an end to her dreams of dancing professionally. In 1983, Yeoh entered the Miss Malaysia contest and won the crown. Soon after, she was cast in a watch commercial with Jackie Chan by Hong Kong retail mogul Dickson Poon. She later married Poon and, after three years, divorced him.

Yeoh, who also goes by the names Michelle Khan and Yeung Chi King, became an action star almost by accident. Industry mentors suggested she give kung fu movies a shot -- and the former ballerina proved a natural. But the work was often thankless and extremely dangerous. During the filming of Magnificent Warriors, one of her first martial-arts films, Yeoh nearly quit the industry. What was supposed to be two weeks of shooting turned into three months of body-punishing action sequences.

Yeoh went on to make such box-office hits as 1992's Police Story 3: Supercop with Chan. Disaster struck during last year's shooting of the Hong Kong movie The Story of Stuntwoman Ah Kam, when she tried to execute an 18-foot jump. She landed on her head instead of her chest. "I heard my back snap like two boards coming together," she says with a wince. Afterwards, Yeoh had to undergo six months of physical rehabilitation.

Now recovered, Bond's new girl hopes to do her own stunts -- though U.S. insurance and legal concerns will keep her somewhat grounded. "In America, it's very difficult to do what we do in Asia," says Yeoh. "But getting bruises, getting smacked in the head -- it becomes quite normal." No doubt, it will all prove to be good training for kicking some Hollywood butt.


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