OK, now I can already hear you saying that Michelle Yeoh didn’t participate in many sci-fi or horror flicks. Of this, I can only respond to you: “Yeah, but what about Heroic Trio and its sequel? What about the many period fantasy movies where she can be often seen?” So there. The worldwide success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon inspires me to propose this astonishing actress who, by sheer courage, talent and personal charm, becomes a choice guest in these humble pages. Let’s face it: did you ever met someone, male or female, who doesn’t like Michelle Yeoh?
So, here are the usual statistics to begin: her real name is Yeoh Chu-Kheng (which can be written differently). Michelle was born on August 6, 1962, in Ipoh, Malaysia. It’s not too long before her athletic skills became evident, as she began training to be a classical dancer. Who can picture her wearing a tutu? But an eventual career was to be cut short as Michelle suffered a back injury, an ironic misfortune in later knowing that she would eventually turn out to be a martial artist of the highest caliber! Nevertheless, she had time to graduate from the London’s Royal Academy of Dance. Back in her native country in 1983, Michelle became a contestant in the Miss Malaysia Pageant and later won the Miss Moomba Pageant in Melbourne. Moomba?
This latest honor would give Michelle the opportunity to shoot a television ad with Jackie Chan, supporting a product as simple as mere watches. Progressively, 1984 would see the big screen debut of Michelle in the action comedy Owl vs. Dumbo, directed by and starring the legendary Sammo Hung (of course playing Dumbo), a close friend of Jackie. Worth noting is the fact that the company producing the film was controlled by Dickson Poon, with whom Michelle would begin a romantic relationship, as she was convincing herself that she could hold her own in the many fight scenes.
This line of thought would even more be put to the test for her second film, Yes Madam, which made her an instant star (under the screen name of Michelle Khan). She shared the screen with an American martial arts champion, Cynthia Rothrock, who was beginning her own screen career. As this dynamic duo astonished everyone, Michelle virtually became a real stunt woman, as she insisted to do her own stunts. To top it all off, a pleasant acting style was already coming through. Asia was now meeting its new action star, doing double duty as a beauty queen and as a ferocious fighter. Hong Kong’s peculiar shooting schedules would soon leave their mark on our friend’s 5’4″ frame, as she followed by shooting In the Line of Duty and Magnificent Warrior.
As she was enjoying an unprecedented popular streak, Michelle stopped her career short when she wed Dickson Poon in 1988. It’s now common knowledge that many Hong Kong actresses retire from cinematographic activities when they get married. This union lasted four years and Michelle returned to the studios in 1992, joining forces with Jackie Chan for Supercop (the North American title for the 1996 release of Police Story III). Her energy was still present, when considering the famous scene where she jumps on a rolling train while riding a motorcycle, an absolute classic in the action genre. She easily stole the show from Jackie, the latter finally admitting with some reluctance that she was his female counterpart.
Also memorable was her next role, that of Invisible Woman in Heroic Trio, alongside Maggie Cheung and the late, great Anita Mui. With its sequel Executioners, this short series proposed the adventures of three female super-heroes without fear. Seeing actresses easily playing action parts too often essayed by men is a too much rare event in motion pictures, so it’s simply astonishing to witness such well-written and well-played roles here. From this point on, Michelle would see her work schedule grow, as she appeared in Holy Weapon, Butterfly Sword, Tai Chi Master and Project S, the latter including a fight scene with our diminutive Siren squaring off with a close to 7-feet guy! In 1994, she headlined Wing Chun, one of her best role, as she was at the peak of her physical prowess. And in 1996, the perfect starring role came her way for The Stuntwoman.
After too many bruises and fractures, Michelle chose to take it more smoothly from then on and was eventually cast in a purely dramatic role in 1997 for The Soong Sisters, alongside Maggie Cheung and Vivian Wu. Then came a new kind of consecration as she became the new Bond Girl in the 007 series for Tomorrow Never Dies. She remains simply astonishing in it, even if we would’ve like to see more, as real fans knew that her real potential was nowhere to be shared with worldwide audiences. Still, she portrayed a modern and dynamic Bond Girl, and one of the few with Asian origins in the entire series.
Oddly, the following years saw Michelle’s name associated with many projects that never came to be (a rumored role in the two Matrix sequels sadly never materialized). It was still worth the wait, as she was finally cast in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which became an unexpected critical and box-office success around the world (but not so much in Asia, who had seen this kind of story for many moons in their movie history). Personally, it’s her sensitive performance (more than her amazing physical skills) which gave me the most pleasure in the entire production. And how come she didn’t receive at least a Best Supporting Actress nomination…?
After another break of a few months, Michelle came back to the big screens in 2002 for The Touch, which she produced as well as starred in. This pleasant action movie lacked an edge that could’ve given more oomph to the project… but seeing Michelle still going at it in action scenes remains a pure joy. She returned as a super-heroine in 2004’s Silver Hawk. And then came big media attention for Memoirs of a Geisha.
Extremely charming, Michelle Yeoh will be a tough act to follow (Zhang Zhi-Yi maybe?). Again, we can only hope that she will find worthy material in the years to come, be it in Hollywood or Asia, even if she recently passed 40, an age that too often spells doom for many actresses.
1984 Owl vs Dumbo 1985 Yes, Madam; My Lucky Stars 2: Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Stars 1986 In the Line of Duty 1987 Easy Money; Magnificent Warriors 1992 The Heroic Trio; Police Story 3 1993 Executioners; Holy Weapon; Butterfly Sword; Tai-Chi Master; Project S 1994 Wing Chun; Shaolin Popey 2: Messy Temple; Wonder Seven 1996 The Stunt Woman 1997 The Soong Sisters; Tomorrow Never Dies 1999 Moonlight Express 2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2002 The Touch 2004 Silver Hawk 2005 Memoirs of a Geisha 2007 Sunshine; Far North 2008 Purple Mountain; The Children of Huang Shi; The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor; Babylon A.D.