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Out of the Archives, 2005: Michelle Yeoh on “Memoirs of a Geisha”

Michelle Yeoh stars in the science fiction film Everything Everywhere All at Once, that premiered at the 2022 SXSW South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
The Malaysian actress – acclaimed for her performances in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) by Ang Lee, The Lady (2011) by Luc Besson, Crazy Rich Asians (2018) by Jon Chu – spoke to the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press in 2005 about her role in Memoirs of a Geisha, directed by Rob Marshall from the 1997 novel by Arthur Golden. 
Michelle Yeoh compared her signature martial arts roles to the very different kind of woman she played in Memoirs of a Geisha: “In my previous roles I have played a very tough woman, but I also expressed my toughness with a strong physical side. If you did not listen to me or if you were a bad guy, I would hunt you down and beat you up. The woman I played in Memoirs of a Geisha, Mameha, was very feminine but she was very tough inside, everything about her showed the toughness that it takes to maintain how to be the best geisha. I felt all the restrictions that were there as a geisha. You do not love, and you do not become a wife. That is not part of being a geisha. You are an artist, you dedicate your life to learning music, dance and so many rituals.”
As an actress this is the aspect of the character that she found the most difficult to portray: “What was the most difficult for me was the perfection of all that, that total control of stillness. When Mameha is in the scene, you feel her there. You might not see her throwing things around or raging and raising her voice, but that presence was always felt, Mameha was always quietly but very strongly there, and they all listened to her because of her grace. She is a moving piece of art, with her costumes, the kimonos front and back and everything else.”
She praised Arthur Golden, the author of the novel, and Rob Marshall, the director of the movie adaptation, who described this aspect of Asian culture with such insight, despite being male: “It was very brave of Rob Marshall to take on such a subject, which is so good for all the Asian actors and filmmakers around the world, because it would be easy to say, ’It’s not my culture, maybe I shouldn’t do it.’ When I first read the novel by Arthur Golden, I thought, ‘My god, a man wrote this, and it’s a Caucasian man.’  But, if he didn’t tell the story in such a beautiful way, then we would be back at the dark ages where we only do the things that we know well. Particularly with this film, Rob Marshall has given us a glimpse into part of a culture that we may not have heard of, and he has done such an amazing and exquisitely beautiful movie. He took you into a time and place that was magical, where emotions were heartfelt, it was about tragedy, unrequited love, jealousy, bitterness, rivalry, it was all there and it’s still here today but in a different manner.”
The actress recognized the affinity of the director for the world of the geishas: “When I found out that Rob Marshall was going to do Memoirs of a Geisha, I thought he was perfect, because he came from a strong dance background, he was a dancer and a choreographer, and music and dancing are part of the essence of being a geisha; but I also felt that he brought out the very masculine and the feminine side of a woman, that he understood the femininity.”
Yeoh praised the director’s choice of hiring an all-Asian cast for the film, despite the fact that they spoke English: “It’s very exciting, it gets to a point where you think, ‘God, I don’t believe this is happening, but I’m glad it is, because it’s a long time coming.’ I think the world, particularly the American market, is ready for an all-Asian cast acting in the English language. Rob really has done an amazing job, where you go into this world and you do not question anymore why are they not speaking in Japanese, because you believe this is our celebration of a culture, and we are very happy to be there.”
The Malaysian actress said that the geisha culture is traditionally Japanese and is not found in other Asian countries: “We do not have a tradition like this in China. Going back to the history books, what you remember of the Chinese culture from that time, or a similarity, was that the last Emperor Puyi took in a lot of concubines who lived in the palace and served him. That was something that was accepted and very much ingrained in our culture for the longest of time, that a man could take four wives.”
She added that in some Asian countries, the fate of girls is sometimes still reflecting those ancient gender roles: “In Japan, the geisha is no longer a tradition, I don’t think any of the women of today would stand for it. Particularly in this story, Memoirs of a Geisha goes deeper into the emotions, the love, the understanding of sacrifice from the parents, the levels and the subtexts of being a geisha, which is very difficult. We are very fortunate that in this day and age parents don’t have to make that choice, in hope that the child, the daughter, would have a chance to a better life, if they send her away. Today we would not be able to comprehend that, but it still happens in Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, in a lot of places.”
There is something that the actress learned from playing all those martial arts heroines in movies: “What martial arts has done for me is that it teaches you to be very focused and very Zen, and to step away from trouble, because nobody wins in a fight. If someone tries to confront me, I would walk away, because I don’t believe in that and that’s what all these action or martial arts movies have taught me.”
This was her definition of a strong woman: “For me a strong woman is someone who believes in herself, in her way of thinking, who is not judgmental and is willing to listen, but has an opinion. A strong woman is someone who is very smart, but you don’t necessarily know how smart she is. A strong woman is someone who understands and who accepts. Sometimes the most difficult part of being a person is the compassion of accepting someone else’s shortcomings. When you look at yourself, you know how many flaws you have in yourself, so why would you be the first one to think badly or unkindly of somebody else? A strong woman has all of those ingredients, but at the same time she is happy with who she is. And that’s me, I hope.”