Where has Yeo Yann Yann been?

Prior to her appearance in the recent You Mean The World To Me, the Malaysian-born Singapore-based actress had been absent from screens, both large and small, for the past three years. The Saw Teong Hin-directed Penang Hokkien language movie was actually Yeo’s first role since 2014, having taken a three-year break from acting to concentrate on being a mother.

Before her break, Yeo was arguably at the peak of her career. In 2013, she had gained international acclaim when she was awarded Best Supporting Actress at the 2013 Golden Horse Awards for her role in Ilo Ilo by Singaporean director Anthony Chen, which also won Best Picture. In fact, she was actually pregnant in real life while filming Ilo Ilo, and the movie even included footage of her daughter’s birth.

During an interview at the premiere of You Mean The World To Me in April, Yeo said that since becoming a mother, she’s had to slow down and prioritise her family. “I can’t work like I’m single anymore, like ‘Oh, there’s a project in Taiwan, bye!’,” mused the 40-year-old actress, who is married to Hong Kong action choreographer Ma Yuk-Sing. The couple met on the set of Malaysian film Petaling Street Warriors in 2011. Their daughter, Vera, is now five years old and lives with her family in Johor.

While her most recent accolades have been for her film roles, Yeo actually made her debut on stage in 1997. She is a well-established actress in Singapore and Malaysia, appearing in numerous TV shows. To date, she has been involved in 16 feature films, including the late Yasmin Ahmad’s 2008 film Muallaf, and the critically-acclaimed Singapore Dreaming in 2006.

Yeo yann yann

Yeo with the Best Supporting Actress trophy she won at the 50th Golden Horse Film Awards for her work in Ilo Ilo in 2013. Photo: AFP

Set in Penang and filmed entirely in the Penang Hokkien dialect, You Mean The World To Me is about a Penang-born filmmaker named Sunny (played by Frederick Lee), who returns home to make a film about his dysfunctional family. Yeo plays Ah Hoon, the eldest sister in the family, and according to her, when Saw offered her the role, she had just become a mother, and was initially reluctant to commit herself to the role.

“I was very nervous about that. I had just became a mother at the time, and I couldn’t really bring my daughter there, or bring myself to stay there for a long time without my daughter, so I just kept saying no,” she recalled.

In the end, she relented, saying that the story about love and family drew her in. “Of course, Penang is also one of my favourite places in the world. I used to work there a lot … I did lots of films and TV there,” she said.

One of her initial worries was the language – she speaks Johor Hokkien which is very different from the one spoken in Penang. “I had to relearn my Hokkien for the movie. When my mum heard me rehearsing at home, she was laughing at me!” she shared with a smile. “I also said I would like to come in earlier, one week before shooting, just to immerse myself in the atmosphere of Penang. Every place has its own speed and rhythm, so I wanted to try to be a Penang lang (Penangite) and speak Penang Hokkien with people on the street.”

Yeo, who started her acting career in theatre, went back on stage in February to “regain her energy”.

“In theatre, you can see the audience, hear them and feel them as they are watching you; and you can suck up all the energy from them,” she said. “But for film, you release your energy through that little lens to the audience.”

Her first theatre show in six years, titled Actor, Forty, is a monologue in which she plays an actress who has just been cast in a contemporary remake of Summer Snow, a 1995 Hong Kong film about a 40-something woman dealing with difficult family issues. The actress has a secret that she is struggling to keep under wraps – she is turning 40 and expecting her first child.

“It was crazy. I stopped theatre for six years, and I chose the most difficult work to go back to! It almost killed me, and I almost wanted to give up!” she complained good-naturedly. “But I had a great time and it made me realise I’m not in my 20s anymore. I don’t have that kind of energy anymore.”

Yeo also lamented that the film world is very cruel to actresses her age, and that they have a pretty narrow choices of films to choose from.

“It’s difficult for me to be cast in every film … we don’t have a big industry either, where we have the luxury of different types of films. I don’t want to play the ‘mother’ role all my life!” she said.

Then again, Yeo is not in a rush to do as many films as she can these days. If she’s not keen or thinks she is unsuitable for a role, she reckons she’ll just shrug it off, go home and spend more time with her daughter.

“I also think it’s very important for an actor to live a peaceful life. Our work involves crazy emotions. So, because of that we need to be as peaceful as we can when we live our own normal lives. I do yoga, I meditate, I run, I read, I watch films, go to theatre … it’s important to gather yourself and be knowledgeable all the time.”

However, she loves acting too much to quit for good.

“I really love acting, and I really want to continue. But I don’t want to push myself, finish all my energy and die, or burnout and not want to make films anymore! I want to act until I’m 80 years old!” she concluded.