Michelle Yeoh kicks ass. And that’s true no matter what part of the multiverse you’re in.
Yeoh has gone toe-to-toe with Jackie Chan and Jet Li, been part of an all-female superhero film (“Heroic Trio”), done period drama (“The Soong Sisters”), and been a Bond girl (“Tomorrow Never Dies”). But no American film had yet given her a starring role to showcase her talents. Until “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
As Evelyn in last year’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Yeoh dazzled us as she goes from frumpy to glamorous, beaten down to triumphant, bewildered to confident. She got to play every emotion an actress could ask for. Plus, she got to save the world. The film gave the 60-year-old actress a role that allowed her to display not only her martial arts skills but also her dramatic chops and precision comic timing.
American audiences first took note of Yeoh in 2000 when she starred in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” But it took the box office success of 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians” to get her mainstream recognition and Hollywood attention.
It’s about damn time.
Some of us have been singing her praises since the late eighties when we were scouring conventions to buy bootleg, fan-subtitled VHS tapes of her films because no one in the U.S was releasing them. The challenge of finding those Hong Kong actioners made them all the more intoxicating when we finally got to watch them.
The Malaysian-born Yeoh became a Hong Kong action superstar with her third film, “Yes, Madam!” (1985). The film paired Yeoh with American martial artist Cynthia Rothrock. The femme-centric action killed it at the box office.
I had the opportunity to interview Yeoh (then called Michelle Khan) at Miramax’s Los Angeles offices in 1996 when she came to dub “Supercop” into English.
It was right after New Line Cinema had released Jackie Chan’s actioner “Rumble in the Bronx.” New Line’s success prompted Miramax (which had been sitting on U.S. rights to multiple Chan films) to release Chan’s 1993 “Supercop: Police Story III,” which co-starred Yeoh.
Stuntman-turned-director Stanley Tong chose to pair Chan with Yeoh in “Supercop.” “Never before in a Jackie Chan movie can you see a girl who can fight,” Tong said. “So, for Jackie, it became competitive, and the film benefits because you’re not just seeing him; you’re seeing another action star who’s female, and they are both raising each other up one notch, and it makes the story work.”
Hollywood action stars might brag about their stunts, but they pale compared to what Yeoh has done. “The audience must remember,” Yeoh noted, “that in Hong Kong, we don’t work with and did not work with blue screens. There are no digital effects. I had someone watch ‘Supercop’ with me, and they were going, ‘Wow, the blue screen effects in Hong Kong are really good.’ I said, ‘No. That’s a real train. I’m really doing that motorcycle jump from the road onto the moving train. I’m amazed that I actually walked away from that movie and was still in one piece.”
Yeoh never planned to be an action star, but her training in ballet laid the perfect groundwork. “Every little girl should have the opportunity to have ballet training because it teaches you such control of your body,” Yeoh said. “At the age of four, I had been going to ballet classes because I loved movement. I was very sporty when I was a kid. I was a swimmer, I was a diver, I was a squash player. So, when they approached me to do an action movie, it felt like the next right thing to do.”
“Yes, Madam” was her first action film and included a jaw-dropping scene in which she fights two guys. She ducks to avoid their swords and swings on a balcony with her legs catching the railing as she flies backward through a pane of glass and yanks her attackers down to the lower floor. “You can imagine the timing,” she told me. “If your legs weren’t held on correctly and if you had gone through the glass, your face is going through all these shards of glass, and you could have been completely cut up. Anybody who has seen that movie would never forget that stunt. I think that mapped my future out for me. It also gave me the respect from my peers that, ‘Okay, this person is someone we have to deal with.’ That movie made me an action star overnight.”
Yeoh not only learned martial arts but also decided to do her own stunt work: “For me, it was just totally unacceptable that someone else would do my stunts, it was supposed to be me, so why should anybody else do it,” she stated matter-of-factly.
Directors and stunt coordinators doubted this petite former dancer and beauty queen doing dangerous stunts. But when Yeoh is determined, there’s no stopping her. “Stunt work is something I choose to do myself because it is such a thrill to be able to do it,” Yeoh said. “I remember the very first movie I did, I used to stand there and think, he can do it, why can’t I? He hasn’t got an extra arm or an extra leg. That means that if I put time into it, I can do it too. It’s such a kick to be standing three floors up and take a dive. You have to be a little crazy, but when you get past that stage, it’s awesome.”
Working on “Supercop” with Chan provided an atmosphere of healthy competition. “It was like sparks began to hit the air,” Yeoh said. “It was like, you’re gonna do this, then I’m gonna have to do that. I was dying to do the helicopter scene, and Stanley [Tong, the director] would say to me, ‘Michelle, wake up, if you do the helicopter scene, what is poor Jackie going to do.’ That was the intensity in ‘Supercop.’”
One of her memorable stunts was riding a motorcycle up an embankment and onto a moving train. “I learned to ride the bike two weeks before I was supposed to do the stunt. And to this day, I still haven’t learned how to stop a bike. I just know how to get on the bike, rev it up, make it go really fast, and jump off,” she said. “I could have really hurt myself in that movie. In another scene, I was rolling off the top of a van and onto another moving car which Jackie was driving. And when things are moving around, you sometimes can’t find the right spot, and I just completely missed it. I was very lucky that Jackie was there, and he literally saved my neck. If not, I would have slid off the car and gone crashing head-down onto the road. And that is an outtake that you will be able to see at the end of the movie.”
Those outtakes will make you gasp and then applaud. Yeoh dismisses all the punishment her body has taken doing action films. “I think the worst I have to live with is having a dislocated shoulder, a cracked rib, one of my neck vertebrae is slightly dislocated, ruptured artery, torn ligaments, but apart from that, I’m in one piece, and that’s the most important thing,” Yeoh said. “I’m still here to talk about it.”
And Yeoh is still here to prove she can kick ass across the multiverse.