She was a ballerina, and then became a beauty queen, later one of the biggest stars of Asian cinema and finally a legend. For over 30 years, Michelle Yeoh delivers iconic work in movies all over the world. Some might say, she has been literally and figuratively kicking ass since the 1980s.
Born in Malaysia to a local Chinese family of Hokkien and Cantonese ancestry, Yeoh started to learn ballet at the age of four. She eventually earned a bachelor of arts at the Royal Academy of Dance in London. In 1983, at the age of 20, she won the Miss Malaysia World contest. Then she starred in television commercials, caught the attention of Hong Kong film producers, and established an action film career. Thanks to her being eager to perform dangerous stunts, her incredibly magnetic, commanding screen presence, and bringing so much personality to her characters, she was hailed as a kung-fu goddess everywhere but soon later she was also proven to be a versatile actress who can pull off any type of role in any kind of film as she admitted that she tries to find a “balance” to not bore her audiences.
For sure, she never does. From dramatic films like “Memoirs of Geisha” to even Marvel movies like “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2” or “Shang-Chi”, Yeoh always surprises. She just can do it all and always stays relevant, always finds a project to introduce herself to the younger generation of filmgoers.
This year more than ever. Not just because she’s getting wide attention for her amazing turn in “Everything Everywhere All at Once “ but also she’s in an “Avatar” sequel, Paul Feig’s new fantasy film, and “The Witcher” origin miniseries which happens to be her return to television after “Star Trek: Discovery”. Years like this are not only great for her but also for us, the movie lovers and pop-culture nerds who never get tired of seeing her in movies. It’s time to look at some of her (many) iconic roles in a legendary career.
10. Tai Chi Master (1993)
Most people love referring to Michelle as “female Jackie Chan” mainly because she performs many of her stunts, Asia’s top female action star, and also because she had excellent chemistry with Chan when they worked together. However, Michelle has worked with other martial arts stars of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema and has found great chemistry with them too, such as with Donnie Yen in the underrated “Wing Chun”. “Tai Chi Master” sees her starring opposite another major action star Jet Li, with whom she’ll collaborate years later in the disappointing Hollywood fantasy “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor’. There’s nothing underwhelming here in “Tai Chi Master” though.
The movie is about two kung-fu fighters who grew up in a Buddhist monastery but were expelled from the monastic community now fighting on opposite fronts and becoming bitter enemies, one of them is working for the army, while the other one is a rebel. Yeoh plays Siu-Lin, a young woman searching for her lost husband, during which she supports herself by playing on a sanxian that said husband gave to her as a wedding gift. Yeoh bust out some comedy chops and is genuinely funny. She also once again proves that even in a supporting role, she comes close to stealing the show.
9. Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
The first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature a majority cast of Chinese descent in a modern setting since The Joy Luck Club in 1993, “Crazy Rich Asians” is the most recent film that brought Yeoh awards consideration. She has been never nominated for an Oscar and you might argue that “Crazy Rich Asians” is a light film and it was obvious that she was not getting one but no.
First of all, there was a lot of hype around this film since it grossed over $238 million on a budget of $30 million, making it the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the 2010s. It also got a SAG nomination for its ensemble, so yeah; it was a good opportunity to give an overdue legend her due. But whatever, at least it’s yet another major accomplishment for Yeoh. Sure, outside of its cultural importance, the film is mostly a light romantic comedy and it doesn’t have too much depth like some other of Yeoh’s films but her performance as a matriarch steeped in tradition and duty gained widespread acclaim because she’s once again stealing the show, bringing so many layers to the role elevates the script.
Yeoh refuses to make her one-dimensional and brings so much complexity to the part and turns it into a show-stopping performance. She even turned down the script for the first time when she thought the character wasn’t interesting enough, but then they worked on it. That also shows how much she cares for the quality, how much is she eager to explore well-written characters, and how selective she is.
8. Yes, Madam! (1985)
What an outstanding intro to the cinema. It’s not Michelle Yeoh’s first film but this Hong Kong action film is basically the first film of the subgenre “girls with guns”, a type of action film that portrays a female protagonist engaged in shootouts. It’s directed by Corey Yuen who’s a well-known, amazing choreographer which means you can expect great fighting and action scenes here. Yeoh and another martial arts film star of the era Cynthia Rothrock plays a pair of cops looking for microfilm, so they can take down some of Hong Kong’s most dangerous criminals.
The plot here is mostly secondary; you’re here for the old-school Hong Kong action fun. The villains are over-the-top and the story is not necessarily very intelligently written but again, who cares. It has amazing fight sequences and Yeoh, as you can expect from her, just delivers in action scenes. The scene where Michelle Yeoh jumps backward over a rail and through a plate glass was particularly noted by reviewers.
This was her first intro to the action cinema and even right from the start, she became an instant icon. Yeoh says she brought the energy she had from her dancing skills to action choreography, saying “I just needed to learn to transfer the energy, because a lot of times in dance it’s very inward and contained. Action is more about how you deliver that energy, pushing it forward.” And it worked amazingly well. The movie is nowadays a bit underrated but back in its time, was a notable success that it launched its own series “In the Line of Duty”.
7. Royal Warriors (1986)
The second film of “In the Line of Duty” films finds Michelle Yeoh in yet another action heroine role. Yeoh says “I’m very proud of myself for what I’ve done, creating a niche for myself in action films because I’ve worked very hard to achieve this. I really treasure this status and do not take it lightly.” And indeed she should be proud. The film is about a group of war veterans carrying out a terrorist attempt that ends up being foiled by Yeoh’s cop character. One can say the film is even improvement on slightly better than the previous installment “Yes, Madam!” with a better story, better villains, and more impressive production design.
Yeoh is once again in top form, you can see that she’s also even more confident in herself than in her previous action role and displays so much of what made her such a special star. This is a great star performance and it helps that film mixes action with some drama and a little bit of humor, even romance! So, Yeoh already gets a chance to shine with her versatility if you look closely enough. Sure, the tone of the film slightly borders on sentimentality but Yeoh’s performance gives the material more honesty. As for the action, it has some of Yeoh’s finest scenes. The nightclub scene, while might be a little too violent for some, is iconic. If you enjoy 80s action films, “Royal Warriors” is great entertainment and one of Yeoh’s bests.
6. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
By the mid-1990s, Hollywood took notice of Yeoh’s charisma, graceful screen presence, beauty, action skills, and acting talent. How they couldn’t anyway? Once you see her, it’s impossible to not take notice. Yeoh was eventually cast in the James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies”, where she played “a woman who was on a par with James Bond” because she didn’t want to play a typical Bond girl. Indeed, even Pierce Brosnan referred to the character as “the female Bond”. She plays Wai Lin, a Chinese secret agent who teams up with Bond to fight an evil media mogul who sets off wars by reporting phony conflicts on his TV stations.
Famed film critic Roger Ebert said, “her presence in the movie is so effective that she’d be a natural to add to the other regulars, like M, Q, and Miss Moneypenny”. While unfortunately, we didn’t get to see her in any other Bond installments, still she left her mark. Her chemistry with Brosnan is wonderful as well. Vogue UK picked her performance as one of the “Bond Girls Who Overshadowed 007”. This was also an important part for Yeoh because, with this role, she made a big transition from East to West, impressing the English-language world with her spell.