TThe Oscars finally arrived, and in a development few would have expected, they were an eccentric underdog Everything Everywhere Everything at once has become the undisputed leader in the field of the best photos. Can the Metaverse’s chaotic action comedy captivate main character Michelle Yeoh? The veteran, Malaysian-born star races head-to-head for best actress with Cate Blanchett, gaining momentum with a wave of industry sympathy and decades-long stardom. Yeoh would be the first Asian (and second woman of color) to ever win in this category.
A win for her would also be notable for other reasons: careers like Yeoh’s don’t end with Oscars. A former Miss World contestant, she became known as an icon of action cinema, a genre that the Academy rarely favors, even if she comes from Hollywood, let alone Hong Kong. Catching up on her early work is a daunting task as many films are only available on obscure DVDs.
Yeoh’s breakout role in the mid-1980s Hong Kong cop film yes ma’amcan be found on Amazon Prime Video under the alternate title On Duty II: Super Cops, with Yeoh credited by her earlier stage name Michelle Khan. She is feisty, but her striking presence and fearless physicality excite her. A few years later, she starred opposite Jackie Chan in an equally fast, furious film Police Story 3: Super Cop (Prime), a hit that launched a run of nine Yeoh roles in two years, all of which have been absent from the legal streaming realm.
Stunt woman (1996; Apple TV) is, however, the most interesting and informative of her early vehicles. Taking director Ann Hui’s human, feminist perspective, her story of a kung fu expert who leaves a successful career as a stunt director for a stuffy marriage showcased Yeoh’s dramatic chops alongside her dazzling action-woman prowess.
Her first role in Hollywood offered less dramatic challenges: a Bond girl, albeit an extremely kicking ass, in Tomorrow never dies (1997). But American action movies weren’t ready for an Asian female lead just yet, and her subsequent Hollywood roles involved playing the second, third, or fourth banana to action men like Vin Diesel (Babylon A.D) and Brendan Fraser (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) or exotic “dragon ladies” in oriental kitsch like those from 2005 Memoirs of a Geisha (Sky Store) where she was nevertheless better than the material demanded or deserved.
When she finally had a worldwide crossover, it came from Asia: Ang Lee’s great wuxia epic (war hero) Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) took Yeoh’s fighting moves to ballet heights while giving her big, soulful romantic notes to play. Sixteen years later, without her co-stars, she reprized her role in Netflix’s hockey sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. Lightning didn’t strike twice.
British filmmakers Danny Boyle and Asif Kapadia took advantage of Hollywood’s resistance, giving Yeoh a lively effect in elegant, cerebral sci-fi respectively Sunlight (2007) and a rarely seen but incredibly atmospheric arctic love triangle Far North (2008). Luc Besson Incredibly Gave Her A Chance For Prestigious Glory With Aung San Suu Kyi’s Biography Lady (2011), but despite Yeoh’s sincere efforts, the film was a dismal – and now woefully dated – dud. You wonder why the director and the actor never collaborated in the comfort zone of working together.
The wuxia genre continued to serve Yeoh most generously – never better than in the great 2010 game The reign of killers (currently free on ITVX), the absolutely tenacious, Ming-era woman against the world romp, co-directed by John Woo. A true legend (Apple TV) i Master Z: The Legacy of Ip Man they are more of an exemplary martial arts effort where he fits boldly into a team.
But a few years ago, Yeoh entered a new Hollywood phase. It’s hard to test it in Jason Statham’s cheeky-looking vehicle Mechanic: Resurrection (2016), or as a haughty shopkeeper in a misguided Christmas romantic comedy Last Christmas. But a huge success Crazy rich Asians (2018), and her regal, hilariously deadpan presence in it seemed to remind casting agents of Yeoh’s strength – alongside a perhaps commanding TV recurring role Star Trek: Discoverywhich drew her to a whole new group of geek fans.
The actress has also won Marvel Cinematic Universe stripes Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 AND Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – although it required a project as strange and unexpected as Everything everywhere use her combat skills AND her acting talent. Whether Yeoh wins or not on Sunday, we hope to see many more award-worthy roles to come.
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