By HELEN BARLOW
Hyper-physical Michelle Yeoh, the only Bond girl ever to match 007, in Tomorrow Never Dies, is reaching a new career height at age 38. Apart from her success with Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the former Miss Malaysia looks set to take on The Matrix 2 and 3, playing the part once destined for a man - Jet Li.
She has worked with famed Matrix choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping twice before - he also choreographed Crouching Tiger's complicated fight scenes.
"I know how talented he is, what a slave driver he is, especially with the arm-to-arm combat, and in Crouching Tiger the fight sequences are much harder and much faster than usual," she says.
"This new wire we move on is much safer too and we were able to do more things in the air. Now with the cables we can walk up and down walls, turn corners, jump and continue to fight."
Until the Bond film, Yeoh was known for her movies with Jackie Chan - most notably Supercop - where she insisted on doing her own stunts, which unusually, Chan allowed. On Crouching Tiger though, she had an accident in the first scene and had to endure painful physiotherapy. Of course you would never know that in the film's most tender moment between her and Chow Yun-Fat, her leg was in plaster.
Says Yeoh, who was clearly in awe of working with Chow, whom she considers "a real actor" while she is merely a martial arts icon: "Chow and I had waited 15 years to be on the screen together, everyone in Asia could never understand why we were never in the same film."
Yeoh is her usual relaxed, confident self today, and her open, direct glance is disarming. This British-educated former Miss Malaysia explains how she doesn't like violence, but she does love sport.
"I do everything, she admits, "I run, I swim, I exercise throughout the day. I don't make a point of going to the gym."
She studied contemporary dance, hoping for a career as a dancer. Instead, she stumbled into action movies when, as Miss Malaysia, she appeared in a Hong Kong commercial with Jackie Chan, and movies followed. Her big international break came with Tomorrow Never Dies, when she played Wai Lin, an agent for the Chinese External Security Force, and a karate expert with formidable fighting and intelligence skills.
"I know I'm not the typical Bond girl," she says, "but they wanted a different female character and that was why I agreed to do it.
"The producer told me that Bond had to be a man of today - if you walked around like James Bond today, women would kill you. And he needed a woman who could be Bond's match."
With her career revving up to full speed, she is not about to settle down and have a family. She was married for four years in the late 80s and has been engaged to an American doctor for years, but has no plans of marrying, as she has started her own film-production company. She seems a lot like her career-minded warrior in Crouching Tiger.
"It's very strange. In Asian society the right thing for women to do is to be married and I also understand that once you are married, the priorities of your life have to change. It's all right to say your career is first, you have to do all these things, but subconsciously as a woman you do make the alterations and at this point in my career I can't afford to do that.
"I'm being selfish, but I've worked so hard to be where I am, and I feel that this is my peak. Luckily, my partner understands that this is what I've chosen to do."
* Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is screening now.