A Viewing Guide to the Films of Michelle Yeoh, An Icon of Asian Cinema

"Everything Everywhere All at Once" offers the actress her best showcase in years

March 25, 2022 9:10 am
Michelle Yeoh
Michelle Yeoh
Getty Images

The exhaustive and exhausting Everything Everywhere All At Once offers Michelle Yeoh her best showcase in years. In it she plays Evelyn, a wife, mother and laundromat owner who will lose everything if she can’t straighten out her taxes. But thanks to the multiverse, she’s also many other Evelyns: an opera singer, action star, alien with hot dogs for fingers — even a boulder who can think and move.

Yeoh is an icon of Asian cinema who has been treated cavalierly in the U.S.: as a foil for brand-name actors, a villain in sci-fi series and, lately, a soap-opera matron. But the Yeoh I fell for years ago was a smart, funny and supremely talented star in Hong Kong, at the time the center of the world’s best action films.

I’ve been lucky enough to interview Yeoh a few times. In an early talk, she was proud of her roles in films like Yes, Madam, a cop procedural largely ignored here. She recalled her first real stunt on film: a back flip through the glass panels on a balcony railing. Afterwards the stunt players warned her never to risk her face that way again.

Yeoh first gained attention in beauty contests and TV commercials. She was offered supporting roles in movies, but was more interested in performing her own stunts than in playing someone’s girlfriend. Backed by her future husband, financier Dickson Poon, and his business partner, martial arts legend Sammo Hung, Yeoh worked her way from cop procedurals to co-starring with Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung in the campy Heroic Trio.

It was her turn in Supercop (aka Police Story 3) that should have made Yeoh an international superstar. The nominal plot has Hong Kong policeman Jackie Chan trying to break up a drug conspiracy that leads him to mainland China, where Yeoh is his stricter, by-the-book police counterpart. 

The action scenes in Supercop set standards that have yet to be matched. The stunts are insanely over the top, way beyond today’s safety restrictions. The most famous scene may be Chan jumping off a rooftop to catch a rope ladder dangling from a helicopter. No wires, no nets, no doubles. (Another stunt involving a helicopter crashed on a railroad car was arguably more dangerous, almost severing Chan’s head.)

Yeoh more than matches Chan’s work. At one point she was asked to leap from a truck speeding down an expressway onto the hood of a pursuing sports car. Director Stanley Tong broke his ankle demonstrating how to do the stunt.  Yeoh performed the leap perfectly, although she wasn’t so lucky in another stunt where she rides a motorcycle up a hill and onto a passing freight train. “I had never been on a motorcycle before,” she told me. Outtakes show how she and the bike almost slid off the train to the tracks below.

Yeoh never trained in classic martial arts, but felt her dance background helped her master the combinations and contortions needed to execute her fights. In films like Tai Chi Master and Wing Chun, she cemented her reputation as a martial artist, co-starring with Hong Kong’s best action stars: Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen (“He has the fastest hands of all of them,” she told me.).

Director Ang Lee cast Yeoh with Chow Yun Fat in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Neither could speak Mandarin, and Chow was not a martial artist. Working with famed action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping, Yeoh performed admirably in complicated sequences requiring extensive wirework. Frankly, she was the only one of the leads who seemed at ease with the stunts.

The movie was the first time many moviegoers in America ever saw martial arts onscreen; audiences in Asia were not impressed, although knock-offs and parodies appeared almost at once. The movie should have been another springboard for Yeoh into international stardom.

Instead, Hollywood cast her with Pierce Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies, a middling James Bond entry sparked by her excellent work. But Hollywood couldn’t figure out what to do with a strong-minded, beautiful woman who could outfight just about any A-lister.

Yeoh continued in Asian films, not all of them worthy of her talents. In Ann Hui’s The Stunt Woman, she costarred with Sammo Hung in a downbeat drama about hard times in the movie industry. The film hits some gritty emotional moments, but is notable mostly for a botched stunt in which she suffered a serious injury falling off a bridge. 

Yeoh occasionally played real-life characters, like Soong Ai-ling in The Soong Sisters, and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in Luc Besson’s The Lady. But in Hollywood productions like Memoirs of a Geisha, she was more often than not relegated to supporting parts. 

A recurring role on the expensive Netflix flop Marco Polo kicked off a resurgence in her career. Director of photography Vanja Cernjul was amazed at her stuntwork, which he described as “balletic.” “I didn’t know what a huge star she was in that part of the world,” he added. “When she walked onto the set, everyone just stopped to look.”

Marco Polo led to Star Trek: Discovery, where over three seasons Yeoh played the badass Captain Philippa Georgiou and her mirror universe counterpart Emperor Philippa Georgiou. She clearly had fun in a role that allowed her to flex her evil side. Editor Jon Dudkowski also got to direct her in one episode.

“Michelle is just a marvelous actress,” he said. “She’s fun, and she’s funny. I was totally intimidated because I was a fan for a long time. But shooting with her was just a joy. Directing an action scene with Michelle Yeoh is just awesome. A lot of times you have to cut around stunt doubles. I mean I’ve worked on shows where an entire fight is on the back of people’s heads because it’s all stunt doubles. But with Michelle, she’s actually doing the fight, and she’s awesome.”

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is her best martial arts performance in years. A spin-off from Donnie Yen’s Ip Man series, it stars Max Zhang as a fighter trying to forget his past, Dave Bautista as an evil restaurateur, Tony Jaa as an assassin in black, and Yeoh as a triad leader trying to go legit. Impeccably coifed in glamorous cheongsams, she’s also a better fighter than any character in the film.

Master Z is the kind of cult film which deserves a much wider following. It’s not just Max Cheng, building on his role in a previous Ip Man movie. It’s got Tony Jaa being serious for once in his career, Yuen Wah as a signifier for the Seven Little Fortunes, and Dave Bautista holding his own in a very different style of filmmaking from vehicles like Guardians of the Galaxy. (Yeoh has a brief cameo in the Guardians sequel.)

As director and choreographer Yuen Woo Ping put it, “Dave Bautista is more wrestling, Tony Jaa is Thai boxing, and Michelle Yeoh is expert at wielding weapons.” He devised a remarkable scene between Yeoh and Zhang where they fight over a shot glass balanced on a nightclub tabletop.

“This is their first meeting,” he explained. “I don’t want them to just sit around and talk, but of course I also don’t want a big fight as soon as they meet. I wanted how they meet each other to be elegant, and at the same time interesting to watch. So all these tiny hand movements, pushing the glass back and forth, was what I decided. It took two or three days to develop, then five or six days to shoot.”

Yeoh is the center of gravity in Crazy Rich Asians, the one performer in a broad rom-com who isn’t fooling around. The others in the cast are just guessing; Yeoh can do wealthy in her sleep. (She used her own jewelry in a key scene.) She can also sacrifice herself without losing her dignity, while winning over everybody on the set. 

“The crew loved her,” Cernjul, the film’s director of photography, said. “She would do things like take my camera operator to lunch on his birthday. She was just so gracious.”

Yeoh shows up relatively late in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, playing the leader of a mystical village. As director of photography Bill Pope remembers, “The first time you see Michelle, there’s a standoff with Shang-Chi on one side and her village on the other. And then she walks up and hugs Shang-Chi, which I don’t think was even in the script. I think she just said, ‘This is what I would do.’ So everyone else is like, ‘Well, that’s what you’re going to do then.’ 

“Tony [Leung Chiu-wai] and Michelle are really lovely to be around, they’re both just wonderful. Michelle is really funny. I mean, she always plays these tough, fighting women and in real life she’s super-sweet and kind of dainty and very warm and huggy.”

According to Daniel Scheinert, one of the two “Daniels” who wrote and directed Everything Everywhere All At Once, Yeoh was willing to try any of the script’s oddball schemes. “She has this ‘can do’ attitude, it’s really hard to phase her,” he said. “We built some trust with her, we tried to embarrass ourselves a fair amount so it wasn’t just her out there.”

Daniel Kwan, Scheinert’s partner, added, “I can’t overstate how important Jamie Lee Curtis was with Michelle. The two of them together felt like they could do anything. And the miracle was they were ready to go there with us together.”

And that’s Yeoh, admired by coworkers, committed to her work, an unfailingly warm presence. And one of the world’s great movie stars.

Movies and TV shows mentioned

Everything Everywhere All At Once (opens March 25)

Yes, Madam (Amazon Prime)

The Heroic Trio (YouTube)

Supercop (Amazon Prime)

Wing Chun (YouTube)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Tubi)

The Stunt Woman (Apple TV)

Tomorrow Never Dies (Amazon Prime)

The Soong Sisters (Amazon Prime)

The Lady (Amazon Prime)

Memoirs of a Geisha (Amazon Prime)

Marco Polo (Netflix)

Star Trek: Discovery (Paramount +)

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (Vudu)

Crazy Rich Asians (Amazon Prime)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Disney +, Amazon Prime)

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