FOR THOSE WHO CAME IN LATE…
In 2019 and 2020 I wrote a dozen Profiles in Badass columns for a new online outlet called Rebeller. It was pitched to me as a “Fangoria for action movies” that would bring together people from all across the political spectrum. It turned out to be more of an anti-PC thing that caused me stress and shame until I quit.
I didn’t pay for a membership so I never saw the comments, and have no idea if people enjoyed my columns or dragged them across concrete. The only reader feedback I saw (other than from regulars here) was when some prick on Twitter shamed them for caving to the PC woke anti-male agenda or whatever by publishing my column about Michelle Yeoh (which he declined to read). Only the sharpest, most reasonable minds over there.
But considering Michelle Motherfuckin Yeoh’s recent upgrade to ACADEMY AWARD WINNER MICHELLE MOTHERFUCKIN YEOH I am re-upping that column for anyone who wants to know more about her filmography. For historical purposes I’m leaving it as I submitted it, but I have two corrections to make:
1) I repeatedly referred to Yuen Woo-ping as “Woo-ping” when his surname is Yuen. Sorry about that. I guess I thought we were friends.
2) At that time I still believed Yeoh did a real motorcycle jump onto that train in SUPERCOP; The Art of Action later informed me that Bruce Law did a jump over the train onto boxes and the landing was Yeoh being lowered onto the train with a very cool wire rig. (Still a great stunt, but very different from what I always believed and spread the legend of.)
PROFILES IN BADASS #9: MICHELLE YEOH
There are several icons of twentieth century Hong Kong martial arts cinema still going strong today. Jackie Chan still makes Jackie Chan movies, somewhat scaled down for his aging body, and sometimes allowing him to stretch the acting skills he’s developed over time. His buddy Sammo Hung does similarly, while excelling as one of the best fight choreographers of our time. Jet Li was doing fantasy martial arts movies as recently as 2016’s League of Gods. And Donnie Yen, if anything, hit a new peak in the last decade or so, particularly with his four Ip Man movies between 2008 and 2019. But none of them has a career quite like their most prominent female co-star, Michelle Yeoh.
While her male contemporaries grew up in martial arts, Yeoh studied ballet from the age of four, and later attended the Royal Academy of Dance in London. A spinal injury stopped her from pursuing a career as a ballerina, but becoming Miss Malaysia 1983 led to appearing in a commercial with Chan, which led to a small part in a movie with Hung (1984’s The Owl vs. Bumbo), and soon she was headlining or co-starring with all of the aforementioned men. She applied the grace, flexibility and timing of dance to a very different type of choreography, adhered to the industry’s fearless do-most-of-your-own-stunts code, and yes, did some of that in high heels, if not backwards. As much as any action icon, Yeoh’s filmography is full of many treasures, and I feel I can greatly improve your quality of life by pointing you to some of them.
If you’re reading this and you’ve only seen one Yeoh movie… well, I guess it might be Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), her turn as a Bond Girl. But if you’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), the Oscar-winning classic from director Ang Lee, you’ve got a pretty good encapsulation of Yeoh’s particular greatness. Just as much as it showcases her agility in balletic, show stopping fight scenes choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-Ping – whirling, gliding, spinning swords, tip-toeing across rooftops and branches – the sad story of Yu Shu Lien’s unrequited love for Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) shows her power for projecting nuanced emotion.
Long before Crouching Tiger, Yeoh was already accomplished in the grand literary-turned-cinematic tradition of wuxia – stories that take place often in specific historic periods of ancient China, but within what they sometimes refer to as “The Martial World” or “The Martial Arts World.” It’s a fantastical realm where everyone you meet is a master of kung fu and weaponry, duels and ambushes are an everyday occurrence, magic is real and gravity is optional. In Butterfly and Sword (1993), Yeoh’s signature move is to stretch her purple scarf across her body like a bow to fire her sword-wielding partner (Tony Leung) as an arrow that goes right through a villainous Grand Eunuch’s “Impenetrable Armor” (a misnomer, it turns out). The Woo-Ping-directed classic Tai-Chi Master (1993) is more Donnie Yen’s movie than Yeoh’s, but she has an incredible fight in a restaurant where she smashes apart tables and uses the legs as stilts. As you do. And she does it out of heartbreak, because she’s been searching for her missing husband for years and just learned he’s now married to a cruel rich lady.
One of Yeoh’s very best is Wing Chun (1994), playing the legendary figure said to have inspired the kung fu style of the same name. Yim Wing Chun is a maker and seller of tofu said to be too muscular and old to attract a man, though she’s pretty much a dream woman up until the disappointing ending where her master (the great Cheng Pei-Pei, also in Crouching Tiger) directs her to get married and “settle down.” Most of the movie is a series of opportunities for this extraordinary woman to spectacularly shut down various dipshits who think she’s “too ambitious.” The village masters tell her to stay out of it when bandits attack a wedding – then they completely fail, so she jumps in and playfully defeats them with the blunt end of a sword. Instead of admitting they were wrong, the masters enlist a “magnificent pugilist” to teach her a lesson. Instead of obeying his command to “go home and have a baby” she humiliates him in a contest where he fails to smash a tray of tofu while she juggles and throws it around and balances it on her feet.
And that’s before the main plot kicks in. There’s a scene where she sits in a chair puppeteering a man with sticks to make him fight. And an ax fight on horseback in front of a burning fence. She launches a piece of flaming wood into a guy’s crotch, making him impotent, which really escalates her feud with bruised male egos. In a rare change of pace for martial arts movie gender politics, the male lead (Yen again) waits outside while she fights the climactic battles.
Yeoh would return to Woo-Ping-directed-wuxia with a small role in True Legend (2010), and then headlining the largely ignored, straight-to-Netflix sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016). Though the look and tone are closer to modern Hong Kong fantasy like the Detective Dee series than Lee’s film, I think it’s severely underrated. Yeoh’s soothing narration somewhat justifies the Weinsteins’ insulting choice to make them film it in English, and the hole left by Chow Yun Fat’s deceased character is cleverly filled by the great Donnie Yen as Silent Wolf. He was actually mentioned in the first one as Li Mu Bai’s deceased friend, once engaged to Yu Shu Lien, preventing their love. It turns out things are more complicated – for example, he’s still alive, and has spent years training alone on a mountain in hopes that those two could be together! Should’ve told somebody.
Woo-Ping is particularly meticulous in his use of sounds: wood breaking or being hit, bricks crumbling, vases cracking, swords vibrating – sort of the percussion to his musical-number-like fights. And though the sequel may not match the depth of Lee’s original, there are strong emotional themes of mourning and regret between the many colorful battles.
If you’re not into that type of fantasy, there’s a whole other mode of Michelle Yeoh movie that kicks a similar volume of ass. Her big breakthrough, and one of my favorites, is Corey Yuen’s cop movie Yes, Madam! (1985). She plays a Hong Kong police inspector chasing criminals fighting over a microfilm. The beauty is that they call in for help from Scotland Yard, who send in Cynthia Rothrock! Yeoh and Rothrock make one of the great good cop/bad cop duos, which is particularly clear in moments like when they turn in their badges together, or when they’re surrounded by thugs and they slap each other five before beating them all up.
Yuen – known in the U.S. for his work on the Transporter series – choreographs complex, joyous fights with lots of spinning weapons (both women use umbrellas), smashing through glass and furniture, pole-vaulting, swinging from a chandelier. Other than the abrupt downer ending, the whole thing is a blast.
Yeoh also plays a Hong Kong cop in Royal Warriors a.k.a. In the Line of Duty (1986). When she and two men (Michael Wong and Hiroyuki Sanada) stop a criminal from escaping during extradition, they earn a vendetta from his war buddies. There are many flipping and exploding cars, a vicious shootout in a night club, a fight on top of a boat, one on the side of a building, a Yeoh vs. chain saw fight. She drives a tank and rides a mine cart away from explosions. Especially memorable is the inciting incident on a commercial flight – she uses the snack cart and fire extinguisher as weapons and smashes the bad guy’s head out the window, causing it to freeze.
Yeoh’s most famous police officer role was as co-star in a Jackie Chan series. I believe I speak for many of us when I say that the first thing that comes to mind when you say “Michelle Yeoh” is a woman jumping a motorcycle onto a moving train, which is exactly what she did in Supercop, a.k.a. Police Story 3 (1993). Interpol recruits Jackie’s Hong Kong cop Inspector Chan to go to the mainland and do an undercover mission for Yeoh’s Inspector Ng. It’s fun to watch them running around together, somersaulting, running up walls, hanging off of vans and helicopters. And did I mention she jumped a motorcycle onto a train? For real?
Lesser know, but also fun, is the spin-off Supercop 2 (also 1993). Inspector Ng is called to Hong Kong this time to help stop a team of ex-military bank robbers who turn out to be led by her ex-boyfriend (Yu Rongguang)! Some of the action highlights include a terrifying wire-assisted building jump stunt and a Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar-in-Game-of-Death-homaging fight against a giant dude. And she’s the main attraction this time, since Jackie only appears in one horrendous comic relief scene.
In Wonder Seven (1994), Yeoh plays a conscience-stricken gangster who helps the titular team of motorcycle-riding crime-fighters bust her lunatic boss. It’s one of her clunkier vehicles on a narrative level, but it’s worth it to see Yeoh in somewhat goth outfits, doing preposterous Ching Siu-Tung directed gunfights and motorcycle chases.
She’s also done a few super hero films. In The Heroic Trio and its post-apocalyptic sequel Executioners (both 1993) Yeoh plays Invisible Woman, chain-whip-wielding henchwoman and chief baby-stealer for wannabe emperor Evil Master (Shi-Kwan Yen) until she joins sword and dagger master Wonder Woman (Anita Mui) and motorcycle-riding bounty hunter Thief Catcher (Maggie Cheung) in saving the city. In Silver Hawk (2004), she plays a pretty standard rich-socialite-with-secret-life-as-masked-vigilante character. That one was a little too corny for me, but I appreciate that she 1) rescues kidnapped pandas and 2) fights Michael Jai White (see Profiles in Badass #2). Also there are evil rollerbladers who fight with metal hockey sticks.
If you can find it, I have to recommend Ah Kam a.k.a. The Stuntwoman (1996), which has a few fights (including one on a carnival ride) but is really more of a melodrama about working as a stuntwoman, with Sammo Hung as her boss and father figure. Obviously it’s a love letter to the invisible work of stunt doubles, but Yeoh herself was almost paralyzed doing her own stunt – jumping off a bridge. The end credits show her unable to get up, but staying serene, even smiling, as they lift her mattress and put her in the back of a van. Not really worth that, but it’s one of her best and most down-to-earth acting performances, and it’s cool to see little behind-the-scenes bits like the scenes where they attach her to wire rigs.
Yeoh’s stronger acting and English-speaking background seem to have brought her wider career options than Jackie, Jet or Donnie at this stage. There are the action-adjacent roles: a season of Strike Back, Star Trek: Discovery (with a spin-off announced for her character), a non-combatant role in Mechanic: Resurrection (2016), a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), which, if ever followed up on, could have her on an intergalactic super-team with Sylvester Stallone. If not she’ll still be in space – she plays a scientist in the four upcoming Avatar sequels.
Then there are the not-at-all-action-related performances, most notably as an intimidating matriarch in the smash hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians (2018). She dominates the movie as Henry Golding’s mother who sternly disapproves of fiancee Constance Wu. It’s weird to see Yeoh in a role where you fear her – much like seeing her in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007) as a biologist who’s not capable of kicking when it would be helpful – but she worked closely with director Jon M. Chu to create a layered and sympathetic antagonist.
That’s all great, but I’m thankful she hasn’t abandoned her roots. After the Crouching Tiger sequel she again reunited with Woo-Ping for a crucial supporting role in Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy (2018), a Donnie-Yen-less spin-off of Ip Man 3. Her gangster-transitioning-to-legitimate-business-woman character takes full advantage of Yeoh’s hard-earned gravitas and regal presence, but man was I excited when a sword ended up in her hand and she started leaping onto the furniture. I hope it won’t be the last time.
Update from the future: Obviously it wasn’t!
More Michelle Yeoh reviews I wrote after this column:
SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS
EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE
REIGN OF ASSASSINS
March 16th, 2023 at 11:57 am
Recently I was wondering if her STAR TREK spin-off was still happening. At one point they said they will wait until they don’t have five Treks at once running, but PICARD is in his last season and DISCOVERY is about to end next year. But then Paramount said they wanna cut down on made-for-streaming productions. However, that was before Yeoh’s Oscar win, so if she actually is still under contract, I can imagine they won’t just waste the opportunity of a STAR TREK with an Oscar winner in the lead. If she is not under contract, she suddenly might be too expensive. Soooooooo I guess we have to wait and see.