Outfest 2009: An interview with Francoise Yip
Francoise Yip in Motherland

Outfest 2009: An interview with Francoise Yip

Doris Yeung's Motherland gives Francoise Yip a chance to show off her dramatic chops by playing an expat who returns to the US to deal with her mother's death.

By Ada Tseng

You might remember Francoise Yip as the tall, dark-haired femme fatale in popular Hong Kong films such as Jackie Chan's Rumble in the Bronx and Jet Li's Black Mask. Or perhaps you remember her daredevil motorcycle chase scene in Hollywood's Romeo Must Die where Jet Li whips her helmet off, letting her long locks loose. In Doris Yeung's directorial debut Motherland, Yip works on a different speed, trading in the glamour of trenchcoats and high-kicks for the emotional and mental challenges of carrying an entire dramatic film on her shoulders. Yip is in virtually every frame, playing Raffy Tang, a woman who returns home to her estranged family when her mother is murdered. As the character is forced to explore the pain she has been suppressing for years, her trauma is compounded by a shoddy police investigation and a lingering distrust of people in her past -- including her own father.

APA sits down with Francoise Yip before Motherland's world premiere at Outfest to talk about Motherland and her career thus far.

Interview with Francoise Yip
July 18, 2009

Asia Pacific Arts: Do you remember anything specific about the Motherland script that attracted you to the role?

Francoise Yip: There was so much going on, but I remember there was a monologue talking about immigrants coming to America, the fantasy of what America is going to be like -- trying to find your dream, trying to make it, trying to fulfill the promise. And I always find it interesting, when something doesn't work out like you want it to, and how that affects people. I think people who come here [to America] have a much different work ethic than people who were born here and think they should just have everything handed to them. So I quite liked exploring those issues.

APA: The film does touch on the American Dream, but to me, it seemed like it focuses less on the people immigrating to America, and more on the reprecussions of that move, onto the next generation.

FY: Yeah, the generation after that is kind of in the middle, cause you're not the immigrant that came for the dream, but people don't look at you like an American, either. So you're stuck between these two worlds. And even for me, my family has been here for the last 120 years, since the 1870s, and I feel very North American, but people don't treat you that way. But at the same time, when I go back to China, I'm not part of that either, and people look at me as an outsider there too. So sometimes how you feel and how you look isn't congruent. You go back to China and it's supposed to be your roots, but it doesn't feel like your roots, and people aren't treating you like it's your roots... so where am I? What am I supposed to do? [laughs]

APA: Even though you grew up in Canada, you started your film career doing Hong Kong films. Was that circumstantial?

FY: Yes, very much. [laughs] It was a Jackie Chan movie [Rumble in the Bronx] that they were filming in Vancouver. It was "the Bronx" [laughs]... in Vancouver. With the mountains. But it wasn't meant to be released in North America. So I think they figured it was just an Asian audience, so they didn't think anyone would notice. I actually was just starting acting at the time, and I had been doing some commericals for a year, but I had never actually gone out for a part. It was my first audition, first speaking role. So I went on Friday, we did some wardrobe stuff, and then they asked me to come in the next day, I tried some stuff on, and we started shooting on Tuesday. So I just came home on the weekend, and it was like.. "I'm going to be in a movie!"

APA: With Jackie Chan!

FY: Yeah, with Jackie Chan! So I was kind of just thrown in there. But I think it was one of my best experiences, because first of all, I was naive and stupid enough to not know how things were done, what I wasn't supposed to do or what I couldn't do. So I just kind of did stuff. Also, working on Hong Kong films is very different than North America. It's very hands-on. Everyone just does stuff that needs to be done. They don't have unions, so there isn't this sort of -- "This is my job, this is your job."

APA: The hierarchy...

FY: Yeah, but there was also a little bit of the structure of being in North America as well. You just can't do certain things in Vancouver that you can do in Hong Kong. So I think it was a nice mix, to have the freedom to do the guerilla shooting that they did in Hong Kong, but with a little bit of holding back. There were some rules. "You can't dangle him off the building..." [laughs] "You just can't do that here!"

We were supposed to film for three months, and we ended up shooting for five. And Stanley Tong, the director, was very patient with me, because I really had no idea what I was doing. I literally remember doing take 15, take 16, take 17.... He really spent the time to make everything look good. I was just thrown in. But it was better than four years of school, right? [laughs]

APA: So was that your "in" into the Hong Kong film industry?

FY: Yeah, I did that, it came out and did very well in Asia, and it came here the year after. But because it did really well over there, people started asking who I was, so I ended up going there and working on a bunch of films.

APA: At the time, did you have the language skills?

FY: No, I didn't really speak Cantonese or Mandarin. I think maybe if I was a different generation. If I was second generation, maybe I would have gone to Chinese school when I was six or something. And also, my mom is French, so we just spoke English at home. So maybe it would have been different if both my parents were Chinese?

APA: Did you have to learn Chinese?

FY: I learned it a little bit when I was in Hong Kong, but in Hong Kong, it was easy to not have to speak Chinese. There are plenty of people there that survive on just English.

APA: So were most of your roles Chinese-speaking or English-speaking roles?

FY: They were Chinese, so I would learn stuff phonetically, and I would learn stuff just for the role. But sometimes what they would do is... [laughs] Because they dubbed a lot of stuff -- in Asia there are so many different languages, so they just dub everything. So if it was a close-up, I'd be saying it in Chinese, but if it was just a big master shot and we were far away, I'd say stuff in English that meant the same thing, and we'd count the syllables. [laughs] And there were a couple of times where there might be a scene where I was speaking English, someone was speaking Cantonese, maybe someone was speaking Mandarin, and someone was speaking Indonesian. So we were all speaking different languages, so you really had to know what was going on. You had to know what everyone else was saying, because you didn't understand what they were saying.

APA: And you have to react to them...

FY: Yeah, yeah, so it was like -- "Is this the part where he's telling me about this and that?" So, I think that's why I ultimately wanted to come back here, because I think I felt that I could only do so much. I could only get into roles so far, in a language I didn't know that well. I wanted to come back and do stuff in English.

APA: Looking at your filmography, it seems like there are a lot of action films in there. Is that fair, or is it just that the action films you've done have been more prominent?

FY: Yeah, there has definitely been a lot more action. That also was something that I got thrown into. The Jackie Chan movie was an action movie, but I didn't do that much action in it. And some of the bigger movies that I did in Hong Kong were action. The Jet Li movie [Black Mask] was months of action. And I think maybe the way I looked lends itself to me being in action. Because I don't look like a victim so much. I'm taller, bigger, not so diminuative. I don't look like someone's going to kidnap me and take me somewhere. I look like I'm going to put up a fight, right? [laughs] So I think I was just put in that category because of how I looked. Because honestly, I'm not that way at all. [laughs] People would always meet me and say, "You're so nice! But you're always so mean [in films]. You're always kicking everyone's ass." And I say, "No, I'm nice. I just look like that." But it's good, because it's almost like a different personality that I can have. I can pretend to be like that.

APA: Do you like doing the action movies, or do you prefer dramatic roles?

FY: I did like doing action, but now that I'm getting older, I don't like it as much. [laughs] It takes me longer to recuperate. You get tired more easily. But I do like the idea of doing stuff that's a bit more involved when it comes to characters and storylines. Ultimately it'd be great to have action and a great storyline together. Something like Motherland is great, because you really have to get involved in it. In any big role where there's a lot of focus on the character, what the person is doing and how they're reacting to the situation, it's a really great opportunity to look at yourself too. You have to try and figure out who you are, but make it fit the character. What you might do might be different than what the character would do.

APA: For your role in Motherland, what part of the character did you relate to, and what part did you have to go outside of your own experience in order to imagine?

FY: Obviously, having your mother murdered is something that hasn't happened to me, so I had to think about how would I feel if that happened, the feelings of loss and betrayal and shock. I lost my father, but in a natural way. It wasn't violent. So I can consider the loss part of it, and that part is very personal to me: how you feel when you initially get the news. That part I connected with very strongly. Where everything is going up to a certain point, something happens, and suddenly everything is different. Everything looks different for a while after something traumatic happens to you. It's different than the space was literally the second before, before you got the news. So that I could connect to.

The other part that I thought about a lot was when she starts to suspect her father might have something to do with it. I just found it really interesting to consider how that would feel. It's kind of like finding out that everything up until now -- like you as a person, your family, and your whole reality -- is different. It would really make you kind of crazy because you don't know who you are anymore. And that's part of the story too. You end up being lost, you don't know which way to go, and it's turmoil, chaos. You're paranoid about everything. Everyone she sees after that from her past -- her ex-girlfriend, the boy she grew up with -- she's looking at them as strangers.

APA: I think the film did a really good job creating that anxiety. You never know who to trust.

FY: I think Doris really wanted to get that through subtly, the feeling of never trusting completely that who you're talking to, what you're seeing, is the truth. It's ambiguous, which is often how it is in real life. You can never be quite sure sometimes. People aren't clear in relationships. You can go years and years in a relationship and not quite know, not get into it. Family members, you feel like there should be a type of attachment there, you feel an obligation, but in reality, you might not have anything in common, and you might not know who this person is anymore. I think it was a conscious effort.

APA: You're in almost every single scene in this film. Did you feel that this was one of the more developed roles that you've gotten to play over the course of your career?

FY: Oh definitely. A lot of times when you have a smaller part, or a part that's just a snapshot of someone, it's almost harder. It's harder to jump in and then jump out. This way, you have the possibility of having a whole arc, and working on something and really getting involved. Also, [in Motherland,] it's not a completed journey. It's a section of time in her life. There's definitely a progression and an arc she goes through, and I think it's left up to viewers to interpret which way she goes at the end, because it's not realy solved. Is she going to let go of the situation or is she going to let it haunt her? It's great -- any actor would love to get their teeth into a part like this. In some ways, it's a lot of hard work. You really immerse yourself, and I really found myself a different person during the time of filming. You can see how people kind of become something else while they're working. You may not be the character, but you're definitely not your regular self. You're thinking about different things than what you're usually thinking about in your regular, day-to-day life.

APA: I'm wondering -- your mom is French, and I think you look pretty Asian, but I'm wondering how your look has affected you in terms of casting?

FY: Yeah, it kind of follows the theme of being stuck in the middle. It's better now for ethnic characters. There seems to be more roles where it's for "a woman in her 20s or 30s," as opposed to specifically an Asian or Hispanic or African American. They're a bit more flexible now.

APA: That's good to hear.

FY: Yeah, I've gotten some roles that haven't been specifically Asian, and even a couple roles that weren't specifically female. Like, my character in Blade: Trinity was supposed to be male but all of a sudden became female because I ended up playing it. So, I was thinking, Oh OK, so I can cross not only any ethnicity, but any gender! [laughs]

But then there are also characters that are very specifically Asian, like immigrant Asian, or first-generation Asian with an accent. And I know that I generally won't get those type of roles. I think it's because you can have a fully Chinese person grow up in America and one grow up in China, and even though they look the same, there are differences like your mannerisms, your diet, your environment. Even how you speak will change the muscles in your face and how you look. There's going to be subtle differences, depending on what culture they grew up in. I just know that it would be hard for me to pretend to be from a rural village in China, when I'm from a city in North America. There's lot of people who do it, but I just think it would take a lot of work to put yourself into that. And I just know that feature-wise -- to white people, I look Asian, but to Asian people, I don't look Asian.

APA: Was that a factor when you were making movies in Hong Kong? Did they think you looked more North American?

FY: No, you know what? I looked like an older film star there: Cherie Cheung. And I think that's why I got that role. A lot of people said that from [my nose] on up, that I really looked like her. So that was a big factor in me doing Rumble in the Bronx. And then obviously, doing Caucasian roles -- I don't go up for some of those roles, because they really want a Caucasian. So I do sometimes feel like that -- I'm not Asian enough to do the Asian roles, but not white enough to do the white roles. [laughs] But looking back, it has made for having interesting roles. Because the roles that I do fit into have been interesting, and they need someone different-looking for it. Not the typical girlfriend role or the best friend. So it's good.

APA: Last question, can you tell me how you got involved with the King of Fighters film?

FY: I went to meet with Gordon [Chan], the director, and Bobby Cheng, one of the producers. The role was pretty fitting for me, because I play Chizuru, the head of a group of three families that control that fighting dimension. And it was good because even though it was an action movie, I didn't have to do that much, because I was the older one that told everyone else what to do. [laughs] So it's perfect.

I knew that King of Fighters was a big deal, that there was a big following and lots of people played it in the 90s. And of course there would be lots of opinions about it, how they think it should be done. You're going from these two-dimensional cartoon characters, to these people that you have to flesh out and make 3D. I think whenever you take something from a different medium -- from a book or comic or video game – there are so many different interpretations and ways to make the movie. It's your imagination.