Interviewer: David Lee, Vice Chairman of Singapore Film Society
David: Hello Yann Yann, today we would be chatting about three of your film roles that were made before, during and after your pregnancy, it is sort of like the three stages of filmmaking, the pre-production, production, and post-production.
Let’s start first with When Hainan Meets Teochew that was made seven years ago, can you still remember what was the role of ‘Meihui’ like?
YY: Yes this was really a long time ago. I remembered Meihui is actually a very childish character. She’s Hainan’s ex-girlfriend, and having just broken up with her latest boyfriend, she came back looking for Hainan. With Meihui staying together with Hainan and Teochew under the same roof, she was kind of like a matchmaker trying to bring the two of them together, yet at the same time, she was also jealous and was a troublemaker between them.
David: Do you have to speak any Hainanese or Teochew lines for your role?
YY: I can understand a little bit of Hainanese, and because I am a Hokkien, I can figure out Teochew easily. I remembered there was one scene when I was making fun of the both of them, and using their respective dialects I would be talking to Chau Min who plays Hainan boy “if you want to look for a wife you should look for a Teochew wife” and to Hong Chye who plays Teochew, I would say “if you want to look for a good husband you should look for a Hainanese husband” and each of them will be like brushing off the idea or reacting hysterically, like wanting to vomit. It was so funny teasing them both on screen!
David: Do you have any views regarding the usage of Chinese dialects on film, especially in Singapore’s context?
YY: To me it’s a big part of our lives, like our mother tongue. They are very beautiful to listen to and I wouldn’t call them dialects, but I would rather call them languages or our mother tongue, like the language that my mother speaks. And now I try to pass it on to my daughter.
Every film that I have made I get to use bits and parts of my mother tongue. I have spoken Hokkien before in my other film roles, and in When Hainan Meets Teochew, I get to speak both Hainan and Teochew. It becomes a specialty for me and some foreign directors were taken surprise when they found out that I could speak so many different languages. I think this is something that is very common with Singaporean and Malaysian actors because these are the languages that we use every day.
David: Ok from the pre-pregnancy period of When Hainan Meets Teochew, let’s jump over to the “post” period shortly after giving birth to your daughter. Rubbers was such a naughty and raunchy sex comedy, did the director Han Yew Kwang need to work hard in convincing you to take on the role?
YY: Yew Kwang was a playful and naughty director and his films reflected that personality. For my role in Rubbers, Yew Kwang came all the way to my place in Malaysia when I was doing confinement after giving birth, just to convince me to do it. At that time my body was not in a good condition, so initially I was reluctant to take on the role and I kept telling him I was feeling very tired but he was persistent and kept begging “Please, please take on this role”. I think it was also the perfect timing as I was breastfeeding then and my body was in a rather voluptuous state, which was good for the role of the seductress.
I remembered during the filming of Rubbers, there was one day which happened to be a long 14-hour shoot, and by the end of it, my voice was totally gone and my body was flat out tired. There was an emotional scene where my voice was gone and I had to whisper throughout the entire scene and I had to do post ADR (audio dialogue replacement) to dub over my lines. That’s why I always say having a healthy body is most important when it comes to filmmaking.
David: You were playing opposite the hunky actor Julian Hee, any interesting stories and fireworks on set?
YY: When doing the shower scene with Julian, he was actually very very shy! I was the cougar who was teasing and trying to seduce him, and yet he was acting so shy, that scene was really memorable and funny for me!
David: You have acted for director Han Yew Kwang in three different films - Rubbers, When When Hainan Meets Teochew, and your first collaboration with him 18 Grams of Love. How would you describe your working relationship and his directing style?
YY: I think Yew Kwang has a unique ‘Han’ style of comedy with a comic timing that was different from other filmmakers. I first started working with him when I was twenty years old, in a TV sitcom, and that was the very first time we met each other. I believe Yew Kwang was the same age as me, so you may even say that we grew up together! At that time during the TV sitcom, he hasn’t found his own style yet, but it was only with 18 Grams of Love that he developed his signature comedy style, which became more mature in When Hainan Meets Teochew and finally when it comes to Rubbers, it becomes a crazy no holds barred kind of comedy. I am looking forward to his next film.
David: From Han Yew Kwang, I would now like to chat about a radically different filmmaker, Anthony Chen. How was it like working with Anthony for Ilo Ilo, especially when you became pregnant with your child?
YY: The first time I worked with Anthony was before he went for his studies in England. It was for his short film Ah Ma. I remembered he said, “I don’t want your character to cry”. Inside I was thinking finally I have a director who doesn’t need me to tear up to convey sadness. I totally agree with him. When I saw the film on the big screen, I thought it was a quiet and powerful film and I made up my mind then that I would work with him again one day. I told him then, before he left for his studies, that if you ever need an actor, please call me. So years later when he called me for Ilo Ilo, I read his script which I really liked, I auditioned for the role of the mother and I got it! At that time, I was not pregnant yet. However, due to the postponement of the shoot for almost a year, when Anthony finally locked down the date and was ready to make his film, I discovered that I got pregnant and I called him up almost immediately even before I called my husband! It was in the middle of the night for him in England, and when he took the call he was half asleep and half mumbling and I thought it was okay. However, he called me the next day and say “Did you call me last night and told me you were pregnant?!” He went on to say he can’t let me play the role anymore!
David: Was it because he didn’t write the role for a pregnant mother? So what happened next?
YY: When Anthony came back to Singapore, we arranged to meet for a long chat. I told him at such short notice, it would be risky for him to recast, but if he chose to work with me, there would be risks too, so why not put the risk on me instead! I have also done my part and got the blessing of doctors that I could continue working, and I kept sending him the latest photos of my changing body, trying to convince him that I am right and ready for the part. So when he finally called me to say that he would change the script to accommodate a pregnant mother, I was like YES! In fact, when we started filming, I was already seven months pregnant!
David: How did your career and life change after Ilo Ilo, especially after winning the Best Supporting Actress accolade at the 50th Golden Horse Film Awards?
YY: When I first won the award, many people asked me the same question and at that point of time, I did not really have an answer, but now after 4 years, it became clearer to me. All these things that happened, the award, the films, did not have as big an impact on my life as becoming a mom. When I was single, I basically live my life around my work and career, but after my daughter was born, I basically live my life around her. She does make me relook at how I can continue to work as an actress and to live my life more positively. No one has ever had the charm or the power to influence my life and decision-making, not even my parents. Before that, all I want to do is to become a better actress. Now because of my daughter, I really want to become a better person. She made me realize I have to take care of my health so that I can better assume the various roles and responsibilities as a mother and also as a working actress. I now live by this mantra “If there is a happy mom, there will be a happy child!” I have never hugged a person this much in my life, and I can easily give my daughter thirty to forty hugs a day. I have been doing it for five years, and I never got tired of it.
YY: For my latest feature film shoot, my daughter actually followed me on set to Penang. And because my child was so supportive, even getting up early at six in the morning to have breakfast with me, and waited until the end of the shoot to hug me, my daughter truly gave me the encouragement and confidence that Yeo Yann Yann the actress can actually work again!