Tom Jolliffe pays tribute to Michelle Yeoh, who is finally getting center stage with Everything Everywhere All At Once…
Good things come to those who wait, but sometimes it takes way too long for things that should be, to come to pass. Much like a good sourdough, sometimes a bit of patience is required, although in the case of Michelle Yeoh, a lead role in a production outside of Hong Kong finally came in her 60th year. Her career has spanned almost 40 years, traversing the action theatrics of Jackie Chan era Hong Kong cinema, to dramatic epics, Marvel films, the Enterprise and more.
A former ballet dancer and Miss Malaysia no less, Yeoh found her beginnings unexpectedly centering on action. At a time when Jackie Chan was reinventing action cinema in Hong Kong, there was also a push to launch a female counterpart to rival Chan, Sammo Hung, Yeun Biao and their contemporaries. 1985’s Police Assassins (Yes Madam) would be one such experiment which paid off.
Yeoh’s ballet background certainly helped as far as flexibility, but if her co-star Cynthia Rothrock had a lot to prove to a male dominated industry and crew, as a world champion in Martial arts, then the more (seemingly) waif Yeoh had even more. As it happens, the film, by Corey Yeun, proved a big hit. Rothrock had a short but memorable stint in Hong Kong, and Yeoh was given a great launching pad. Despite a brief run out the blocks though, Yeoh had a five year hiatus between 1987 and 1992.
In 1992 however she came back with a bang in Supercop (also known as Police Story 3). She more than matches her iconic co-star Jackie Chan and the film proved popular enough to garner her own spinoff sequel, Supercop 2 (or Project S). Yeoh was more than proving her action chops too, by this point up to speed with martial arts training and with a penchant for doing the kind of crazy stunts that Chan and other male stars were renowned for in the Hong Kong landscape. As Chan himself was just transitioning over to Hollywood, it seemed inevitable that Yeoh would also make that leap. Ironically, though Chan had already appeared in a handful of Western backed films which never quite worked for him, he’d get his big studio picture debut (Rush Hour) a year later than Yeoh.
For Michelle, it was a date with James Bond in Pierce Brosnan’s second outing Tomorrow Never Dies. A film which is largely forgettable aside from some memorable set pieces, is also most notable for Yeoh’s magnetic presence and effortless ass-kickery. She manages to outdo Bond and bring a film to life that never quite sells its Rupert Murdoch-esque villain. Yeoh proves by far the best part of an otherwise so-so Bond outing, and stood out enough to deserve perhaps a few of the openings that Chan was getting post Rush Hour, and Jet Li after Lethal Weapon 4. It wouldn’t prove that way. By choice or not, who knows, but Yeoh’s next major move would certainly prove to be significant.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was remarkably successful across the world, hitting the kind of audience and award recognition that martial arts Wuxia epics had never seen before. Big box office and four Oscar wins. It was a remarkable achievement for Ang Lee which helped give Chow Yun Fat another bite at Hollywood (following Replacement Killers and The Corrupter), and launched Zhang Ziyi to superstardom. Yeoh likewise benefitted, continuing to work solidly and keep her presence around the world.
Some years go by and Yeoh pops up here, there, and everywhere. Always a radiant, powerful and engaging presence, but then comes another major step, not just for her but for the representation of Asians in Western cinema. Crazy Rich Asians, a glitzy, glamorous and enjoyable rom com would break the box office in a way studio execs would never have fathomed for a film with an almost entirely East Asian heritage cast. In it, Yeoh is an antagonist. She’s the stern and disapproving mother of the leading man (Henry Golding). He’s a Singaporean rich boy who meets an Asian American girl whilst he’s overseas and she (Constance Wu) is never good enough for the fierce mother.
Yeoh is exceptional in the film, further cementing the fact that apart from a primo kicker of bottoms, she’s also always been a wonderful character actor too. She’s mean, a little scary, very intimidating but also a figure of sympathy too. It was the kind of performance which was rightly talked up for Oscar recognition. Talking sadly, was the extent of that recognition though. She was (criminally) overlooked. Despite this, and other standout performances in the west, and further great roles since (including Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings, Boss Level) it’s been evident that Yeoh has often been viewed as a supporting specialist.
From one perspective you can understand why. She has range and an ability to portray an array of characters in a lot of genres. The more cynical thought though, may be that execs haven’t been as readily willing to put Yeoh front and center as they probably could have. That changed thanks to the Daniels, (Kwan and Scheinert) who would put Yeoh where she has destined to be, in her very own spotlight with Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Somewhat ironically, it was almost a very different outcome. Jackie Chan had been the original choice, with Yeoh being eyed as his wife in a supporting role. A change of heart and an alignment of stars and fate saw the duo directors decide Yeoh could and should be the lead in a picture which sees an aging immigrant caught up in a bizarre multiverse adventure.
The genre bending film opened to great reviews, lauding the creative verve of its directors, and additionally heaping praise on Yeoh’s ability to carry the film with a perfect blend of comedy timing, dramatic weight and physical energy. If you’ve followed her career you know it’s all in her remit of course, but Yeoh gets her leading role finally, under the hip-as-one-can-get banner of A24, and the resulting film is generating plenty of awards buzz heading into the Oscars.
Next up for Yeoh is a leading role in Netflix’s limited series The Witcher: Blood Origin, premiering on Christmas Day. What comes after that will be interesting but hopefully a chance to be the leading lady in a few more pictures alongside a continuation of engaging character roles and supporting parts in interestingly diverse cinema… along with potential Oscar success for EEAAO?
What are your favourite Michelle Yeoh films? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022/2023, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.