Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann talks about her award-winning part in Ilo Ilo.
YEO Yann Yann keeps looking more and more radiant as she continues her awards sweep for the movie Ilo Ilo, in which she plays a pregnant mother dealing with family problems during a recession.
She was voted Best Actress at the 11th Pacific Meridian Film Festival in Vladivostok in September and the 15th Mumbai International Film Festival in October. She then won Best Supporting Actress at the 50th Golden Horse Awards in Taipei in November and the 56th Asia-Pacific Film Festival in Macau this month.
During her press round in Kuala Lumpur, the petite 36-year-old Malaysian actress looked fresh in her saffron yellow dress and youthful pixie cut. Her success secret? She doesn’t accept overlapping movies, and she always takes a break between jobs.
“I never work on more than one project at a time because I immerse myself in each role. I need time to recover and compose myself, physically and psychologically. That means I make less than others, but my health is more precious,” said Yeo.
Ilo Ilo was written, directed and produced by 29-year-old Anthony Chen. In his feature film debut, he spins a tale about a boy’s bond with his family’s new maid, inspired by a domestic helper from Chen’s own childhood, Teresa Sajunia. Now 55, she has since returned to the Philippines and lives in San Miguel, Ilo Ilo.
The movie began its winning streak by becoming Singapore’s first film to win the Camera d’Or at the 66th Cannes Film Festival in May. Ilo Ilo is also Singapore’s official submission to the 2014 Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. The overwhelming reception for the movie has resulted in an extended run following its re-release in Singapore.
Yeo reveals she was impressed with Chen after working on his short film Ah Ma in 2007. But she had to wait for his next movie as he completed Singapore’s National Service first before graduating from the National Film And Television School in Britain in 2010.
“I wanted to work with Anthony again and make a movie. But he wanted to further his studies first. I don’t think he realised how excited I was to see him again for another project together,” she said.
Though she’s been winning over festival juries with her portrayal of a mum who hates her son’s relationship with their new Filipina maid, Yeo admits it wasn’t easy getting into her character’s psyche.
Yeo was single when cast for the part, but then met Hong Kong action choreographer Ma Yuk-Sing, 53, while shooting the martial arts action comedy Petaling Street Warriors in 2011. They married after a whirlwind romance and she was pregnant in real life while filming Ilo Ilo.
In fact, she almost lost the part when she told Chen about her pregnancy. He was concerned she wouldn’t stand up to some intense scenes. But in the end, he rewrote the screenplay to include her pregnancy into the plot.
“When I read the script, I couldn’t understand what Anthony meant (about how the mother feels threatened by her son’s relationship with the maid) – until I gave birth to my daughter. Then I realised how devastating it could feel when your child gets closer to others,” said Yeo.
Filming was relatively smooth, she adds, except for when her unborn child was affected by an emotional sequence in which she scolds and canes her on-screen child, played by Koh Jia Ler.
“My daughter Vera had been quiet all the time we were filming. I felt relieved that she somehow understood my work; that was encouraging. So I was surprised by her reaction when we filmed that scene where my character gets angry with her son.
“She seemed terrified. She was trembling in my stomach as we played it out. We had to stop and calm her down. I had to gently reassure her that it was all just acting, and that I was not really angry with the boy.”
The movie also includes real footage of Vera’s birth.
“I was not too keen when Anthony first asked me. I said I would ask my husband,” said Yeo, who didn’t expect him to say yes.
“When it was time (to give birth), I called Anthony and we all rushed to the hospital. However, only the director and cinematographer were allowed into the delivery room. Even my husband had to wait outside.”
Being away from her 16-month-old daughter for work hasn’t been easy for Yeo: “I missed her first words (gou gou, which is Mandarin for dog) and her first steps.”
With her husband in Hong Kong and daughter in Johor, Yeo is currently in jet-setter mode. But as she continues to promote Ilo Ilo with Chen around the world, she says she’s not accepting anything else and is only looking forward to a well-deserved vacation with her family.
“I hope to take a nice holiday and spend time with my daughter and husband. Christmas is the ideal time for a get-together with my family.”
Ilo Ilo opens in Malaysia on Jan 2, 2014.