11 Essential Michelle Yeoh Films

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11 Essential Michelle Yeoh Films

Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte
Whether you’re a new fan looking for more award-worthy performances like Everything Everywhere All At Once, or a longtime one happy she’s finally getting her due, these are the Yeoh cuts to check out.

A year ago Michelle Yeoh wasn’t on anyone’s Oscars bingo card. Then Everything Everywhere All at Once premiered at SXSW and became an unstoppable indie hit that entered the year-end awards conversation. That much of its success rested on Yeoh’s demanding, intricate performance—which required her to kick ass one moment and attempt to repair frazzled family ties the next—has not gone unnoticed. Yeoh’s now a favorite  for the Best Actress prize for her work as Evelyn, the proprietor of a struggling laundromat whose trip to an IRS office draws her into a universe-spanning adventure. At 60, Yeoh’s global profile has never been bigger, and it will soon be bigger still, thanks to roles in the upcoming Avatar films, an appearance in A Haunting in Venice (Kenneth Branagh’s latest Agatha Christie mystery), the TV series American Born Chinese, and a major part in the Wicked adaptation.

It all seems pretty unlikely, but then much of Yeoh’s career has been that way. Born in Malaysia, Yeoh pursued athletics and ballet. She reluctantly entered the Miss Malaysia contest at her mother’s insistence, then won it. That led to work in commercials (where she met Jackie Chan), which in turn led to movie roles in Hong Kong’s booming film industry, (work interrupted by marriage and a brief retirement), which in turn led to Hollywood by way of a James Bond movie. There Yeoh worked steadily for years without quite becoming a household name, even after appearing in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

That’s changed lately, thanks to major roles in successful films such as Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. That means new fans now find they have a lot of catching up to do and longtime fans might want to catch some Yeoh performances they might have missed (or revisit some old favorites). With that in mind, here are some essential Yeoh performances and where you can watch them.

Yes, Madam (1985)

Credited in her early films as “Michelle Khan,” Yeoh made her starring debut playing a cop searching for a missing bit of microfilm that implicated a powerful gangland figure. Much of the film, directed by the prolific actor/director/fight choreographer Corey Yuen, gets bogged down with comic business involving some bumbling crooks , but it opens and closes with stunning action scenes that have to be seen to be believed, complete with stunts performed by Yeoh and her co-star Cynthia Rothrock (a martial arts stalwart in her own right making her film debut). The film set Yeoh up as an action star while kicking off a string of Hong Kong action films focusing on female stars. It also helped establish Yeoh’s on-screen persona as a confident woman in a world dominated by men. (Available to rent or purchase via Prime Video.)

Super Cop (a.k.a. Police Story 3: Super Cop**) (1992)**

After taking a few years off Yeoh made her return as Jackie Chan’s co-star in the third entry in his successful Police Story series, although “co-star” doesn’t do  her work justice. Even working alongside Chan at the height of his powers, Yeoh steals the film, matching Chan’s death-defying stonework in every scene in which she appears. It’s thrilling and a little terrifying (especially once you’ve seen the outtakes that show stunts going awry that play over the closing credits). Yeoh knew kung fu, could leap on moving vehicles and  had charisma that burned up the screen. She was the total action movie star package. Repackaged as Super Cop for its North American release in 1996, this was much of the West’s first chance to see Yeoh in action. (It’s a bit complicated: the re-edited North American version is widely available through the usual streaming rental services. The original Hong Kong cut can be found on DVD and Blu-ray.)

The Heroic Trio (1993)

 This hard-to-describe (and hard to find) Johnnie To-directed action film finds  Yeoh alongside fellow Hong Kong stars Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung (whose performance as a rifle-toting motorcycle enthusiast will surprise those who know her mainly from Wong Kar-Wai movies). Yeoh plays a woman with an invisibility-granting robe,  reluctantly stealing babies for a supervillain until she eventually teams up with Cheung’s vigilante and Mui’s masked avenger (who goes by the copyright-flouting name of “Wonder Woman”) to right wrongs. Both the plot and the wild action seem designed to produce a state of delirium. (Available to rent or purchase via Alamo Drafthouse.)

Tai Chi Master (1993)

The Heroic Trio was one of six Yeoh films released in 1993, a slate that included both a sequel to Super Cop and Executioners, a second Heroic Trio film. Tai Chi Master cast her in a classic wuxia alongside Jet Li, who plays Zhang Sanfeng, the mythical founder of Tai Chi. A sort of folk tale/biopic, it’s more Li’s film than Yeoh’s but she still has plenty to do and she’s working with a director who knows how to make great use of her skills: Yuen Woo-ping, a revered fight choreographer best known in the West for his contributions to The Matrix and its sequels. (It’s not currently streaming but an excellent Blu-ray edition is widely available.)

Wing Chun (1994)

Yeoh and Yuen Woo-ping teamed up again the following year for another period action film, this one very much built around her (with major contributions from emerging star Donnie Yen). Yeoh plays Wing Chun, who tends to her village’s tofu shop alongside her aunt and dresses in men’s clothes. This confuses her childhood sweetheart (Yen) when he returns after spending years away and mistakes a comely widow for Wing Chun. Increasing the confusion: some bandits that will force them to put their kung fu skills to the test. Mixing broad farce and some pointed skewering of traditional roles with dizzying action, it showcases Yeoh’s skills as a Hong Kong star at their best. It’s also, unfortunately, currently available in North America in a cruddy looking dubbed version, but you take what you can get sometimes. (Available to rent or purchase via Prime Video.)

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

A combination of Hollywood taking notice, changes in the Hong Kong film industry, and the handover of Hong Kong to the Republic of China prompted Hong Kong’s movie talent to explore options elsewhere in the mid ’90s with varying degrees of success. Yeoh broke through in a big way appearing opposite Pierce Brosnan in his second outing as James Bond, more than holding her own as Wai Lin, a rival Chinese agent. Yeoh dazzles in the fight scenes and has movie star charisma to match Brosnan’s— there was no mistaking her for an ordinary Bond girl. (Currently streaming on HBO Max and available to rent or purchase on all major services.)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001)

Yeoh was clearly a star, but she didn’t always get the roles her wattage deserved after Tomorrow Never Dies. The great exception came with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a lyrical wuxia that found the Taiwan-born director revisiting the sort of romantic martial arts adventure stories that enchanted him as a child with an adult sensibility. Yeoh stars opposite another Hong Kong star, Chow Yun-Fat, as longtime friends who cannot express their feelings for another as they get wrapped up in the struggles of another couple (Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen). Lee puts Yuen Woo-ping’s remarkable fight choreography to lyrical ends, creating fight scenes that are as much about his character’s inner lives and unexpressed feelings as who can take down who. A worldwide hit, it provided another showcase for Yeoh’s action skills and confirmed her dramatic abilities. (Available to rent or purchase on all major services.)

Sunshine (2007)

An instant classic like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon should have opened up a world of opportunities for Yeoh and she certainly didn’t want for work. But she often appeared in little-seen independently produced films or as supporting characters in films like Babylon A.D., Morgan, and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, projects she alternated with returns to Hong Kong films. Yeoh is adept at ensemble work, and the right projects always brought out the best of her, like this eccentric Alex Garland-penned, Danny Boyle-directed science fiction film in which she plays a biologist on a mission to reignite the sun that finds itself facing unexpected perils. The film bombed at the time, but it’s rightfully enjoying a second wind as a cult film. (Available to rent or purchase on all major services.)

Star Trek: Discovery (2017 – 2020)

If the Yeoh-nassance has a point of origin it’s probably her contributions to the first series of Paramount+’s ongoing Star Trek revival. Yeoh appears in early episodes as Captain Philippa Georgiou, mentor and hero to series protagonist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). She’s quite good, , but it’s her return as Georgiou’s evil Mirror Universe doppelgänger that unlocks her ability to be wickedly funny (while appearing as tough as she had when she first patrolled the mean streets of Yes, Madam over thirty years earlier). Yeoh hadn’t really gone anywhere, but she was definitely back. (Streaming on Paramount+)

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Last Christmas (2019)

Crazy Rich Asians brought Yeoh’s second act to an even wider audiences and she brings a combination of menace and nuance to the role of an imposing mother. She’s just as fun as “Santa,” the owner of a Christmas shop in Paul Feig’s odd, heartfelt holiday rom-com Last Christmas. She’d draw on some of the same comedic skills for Everything Everywhere All at Once, which, by drawing just as equally on Yeoh’s dramatic and action skills, plays like the culmination of a long, eventful career. Or it would if it didn’t seem like Yeoh was just getting started. **(**Crazy Rich Asians is streaming on HBO Max and available to rent or purchase on all major services. Last Christmas is available to rent or purchase on all major services.)

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