The Many Faces of Michelle Yeoh

A journey through the Hong Kong star's vast diversity of roles come to a climax in her latest film, "Everything Everywhere All at Once."
Sean Gilman

Everything Everywhere All at Once. Courtesy of A24.

In an interview with Donna Chu of the Hong Kong Film Archive in 1999, Michelle Yeoh said, “Nowadays, when people hear that Michelle Yeoh is in a film, they will immediately think it is an action film. I hope in the future it will be different, and I can present a variety of faces of myself to the audience. But right now 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. But as an actor, you just want to try to act in different styles, and pursue being in different genres of films.”1The twenty plus years since then have seen Yeoh accomplish exactly that, as she is now internationally famous not just as a star of action films, though she continues to make them, but as an actress in a wide variety of material, from key supporting roles in Hollywood romantic comedies like Crazy Rich Asians and Last Christmas, to the leads in prestigious biopics like The Lady and The Soong Sisters, to blockbuster genre franchises like Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Star Trek: Discovery, and James Cameron’s upcoming Avatar sequels. Her latest release, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All At Once, is the culmination of Yeoh’s eclectic interests, a film that presents all the facets of her star persona in one weird, slightly incoherent but extremely likable mishmash.

Michelle Yeoh was born into a prominent Malaysian Chinese family in Ipoh in 1962. She and her family moved to London when she was 15, where Yeoh studied ballet at the Royal Dance Academy. But a back injury put an end to her dance career and after graduation she went back east, where she won the Miss Malaysia pageant in 1983 and, on a whim, decided to appear in a watch commercial in Hong Kong. The watch company was owned by an ambitious magnate named Dickson Poon, and the commercial co-starred Jackie Chan (not speaking Cantonese, and only knowing him by his international name, she didn’t realize who he was until he showed up on set), and he convinced her to give acting a try. Yeoh signed on with Chan’s old classmate Sammo Hung, who was in the process of launching a new film production company with Poon (D&B Films, the D is for Dickson, the B from Sammo’s name: Hung Kam-bo).

They first tried her out in a supporting romantic role in the comedy The Owl vs. Bumbo, with Hung and George Lam. But comedy wasn’t a great fit. Yeoh said, “They asked me, ‘Would you rather make comedies or action films?' At the time, my Chinese was even worse than it is now. I felt that comedy films would require good timing and fluent Cantonese, whereas in action films I didn't need to talk very much, so I chose action films.” So for her next film she was paired with American martial artist Cynthia Rothrock for Yes, Madam, a modern day cop movie along the lines of Chan’s Police Story (which was actually released two weeks later) directed by Corey Yuen, a former Peking Opera classmate of Chan and Hung with a reputation for creative action sequences and discovering new talent . From the outset Yeoh distinguished herself as an extremely hard worker, learning as much as she could to do as many of her own stunts as possible, earning her the respect of the Hung’s troupe of extraordinary stuntmen. Her ballet training certainly helped—many of the great Hong Kong female action stars were initially trained as dancers, not martial artists: Cheng Pei-pei, Kara Hui, Moon Lee, Zhang Ziyi, and more. But Yeoh’s determination to do her own stunts earned her a reputation for toughness and even comparisons to Jackie Chan himself.

Yes, Madam launched not only Yeoh and Rothrock’s distinguished action careers, but also a whole subgenre of Hong Kong action known as the “Girls with Guns” movies. These films were usually light on plot and character, but featured some of the most breathtaking stunts in a cinema known for insane action sequences. In these films stars like Rothrock, Sibelle Hu, Moon Lee, Oshima Yukari, and Cynthia Khan fought not just murderous criminals, but the patriarchal condescension of friends and foes alike. The Girls with Guns cycle ran from the late 80s through the early 90s, but Yeoh missed most of it. After another couple of action movies, Royal Warriors, a cop movie with Sanada Hiroyuki and Michael Wong, and Magnificent Warriors, a Republican Era film with an Indiana Jones vibe co-starring Derek Yee and Richard Ng, Yeoh only made one other movie, the heist romcom Easy Money (co-written by Wai Ka-fai) and then retired to marry Dickson Poon. She didn’t work again until they divorced in 1992.

That year her big comeback came alongside Jackie Chan in Supercop, the third film in his Police Story series. Yeoh plays a PRC military officer who teams with Hong Kong cop Chan to infiltrate a group of bad guys led by Yuen Wah (another former Chan classmate). Yeoh absolutely runs away with the film: her stone-faced deadpan is a perfect foil for Chan’s goofy slapstick antics and her stunt-work matches him in both elegance and sheer death-defying lunacy. The next two years saw a remarkable explosion of work from Yeoh, and it’s these films, six in 1993, three in 1994, that firmly established her as one of Hong Kong’s all-time greatest stars. She  re-teamed with Supercop director Stanley Tong for Project S (a.k.a. Supercop 2), then starred in Butterfly & Sword, a wild display of nigh-incoherent wirefu from choreographer Ching Siu-tung. Ching also co-directed Yeoh along with Johnnie To in The Heroic Trio and Executioners, a pair of demented, apocalyptic superhero movies in which she plays The Invisible Woman to Maggie Cheung’s Thief Catcher and Anita Mui’s Wonder Woman. She played a key supporting role in the Jet Li film The Tai Chi Master, and the lead in Wing Chun (with Donnie Yen in support). Both were directed by Yuen Woo-ping, and are two of his very best films, movies where the story and characters are a match for his wild choreographic and visual imagination. Wing Chun in particular is, along with Supercop, the best example of Yeoh as action star, giving her not only a whole lot of great kung fu fights but also some fine comic sequences and a strong (well, for mid-90s Hong Kong cinema, at least) feminist message (she learns the eponymous fighting style from her master, Cheng Pei-pei, and uses it to fight off the backwards ideas of gender roles that surround her).

Yeoh’s next big film is a kind of mid-career summary, based loosely on her own life and directed by Ann Hui. In Ah Kam (a.k.a. The Stunt Woman), Yeoh plays a woman who works her way into Sammo Hung’s stunt crew but then gives it up to marry a businessman, but eventually comes back to film some years later. The movie falls apart in its final third, largely because Yeoh seriously injured her back (again) performing a stunt. From this point on Yeoh slowed her working pace down and began taking on a much wider variety of roles. In 1997, she played one of the eponymous women in Mabel Cheung’s The Soong Sisters, an epic biographical drama about the three women who married into the upper echelons of Republican Chinese society. And later that year she made movie history by starring in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.

At the time, a number of Hong Kong’s greatest stars were seeking work in Hollywood and elsewhere, fearful of what would happen to the colony and its movie industry after it was handed over to Mainland China. Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-ping, Corey Yuen, Jet Li, and many more made films in Hollywood at the time, and Yeoh was as successful as any of them, garnering raves for her reinvention of the Bond Girl as a fighter on par with (honestly surpassing) the lead, and not just a sexual object. A couple of years later, she followed it up with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a vast international co-production that was in spirit equal parts Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and Hollywood. Directed by Ang Lee and choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, Yeoh plays a veteran of the jianghu, the world just outside the bounds of normal society that is the home of super-powered wuxia heroes, governed by strict moral and social codes. A synthesis of King Hu-style prestige wuxia with state-of-the-art Hollywood effects, Crouching Tiger was an enormous hit (it remains to this day the highest grossing foreign language film at the North American box office, by more than a two-to-one margin) and a critical success, earning Yeoh Best Actress nominations at both the Golden Horse Awards and the BAFTAs (she lost to Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love at the former and Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich at the latter).

For the next several years Yeoh bounced around between Hong Kong and American productions. In 2005, she tried the Hollywood prestige route, joining the all-star cast for Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha. The fact that Yeoh and fellow supporting actress Gong Li, as well as star Zhang Ziyi, are Chinese and not Japanese seems not to have bothered Marshall or anyone else in Hollywood, but even setting that aside, the film is a disaster. Ronny Yu’s fine Jet Li film Fearless followed in 2006, then Danny Boyle’s spaceship horror movie Sunshine in 2007. She joined Jet Li for the egregiously awful The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor in 2008; then went back to Hong Kong in 2010 for the lead in the solid wuxia Reign of Assassins, co-directed by John Woo. In 2011 came another awards shot with The Lady, a biopic directed by Luc Besson about Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a film no one wants to talk about much these days, as shortly after the film came out Suu Kyi went on to power in Burma, and then became embroiled in controversy regarding her complicity in genocide against that country’s Rohingya minority as well as various charges of corruption, leading to many organizations withdrawing the various awards they had given her during her activist days. Yeoh has expressed some interest in making a sequel to the film, covering the last decade of controversy (she’s denounced the actions against the Rohingya as “appalling”).

Yeoh made only one movie between The Lady and 2016’s Crouching Tiger sequel Sword of Destiny, the Korean-Thai cooking film Final Recipe, another movie I’ve never seen or heard anything about. Sword of Destiny though was one of the first big Netflix movies, and re-united Yeoh with Yuen Woo-ping, this time as director, and Donnie Yen. It, like Reign of Assassins, is a solid example of 21st century wuxia, driven more by computerized special effects and the glossy colors of digital cinematography than the bone-crunching verisimilitude or lunatic practical effects of the genre’s golden ages. As in most of her work in this period, Yeoh gives a fine, soulful performance, grounding the otherwise mediocre movie and giving it a real sense of class. This has become her calling card in both Hong Kong/Chinese productions and her Hollywood films: supporting roles that lend a gravitas to the movie that the leads and/or scripts can’t summon for one reason or another.

This is certainly the case with Crazy Rich Asians, the blockbuster American film directed by Jon Chu that relies on Yeoh’s terrifying prospective mother-in-law to give the largely nonsensical movie some real weight and energy. She does much the same in the Marvel film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, joining Tony Leung as actors so vastly overqualified for their parts that the ostensible lead, the blandly likable Canadian actor Simu Liu, blends neatly into the computer-generated background. She gets a better role in Paul Feig’s romantic comedy Last Christmas, playing star Emilia Clarke’s boss/quirky friend Santa (she owns a Christmas shop). It’s not a good film, but it is, somewhat remarkably, quite easy to watch thanks to an essential niceness to the production and a co-star in Clarke that for once rises to Yeoh’s level. But Yeoh’s best recent work has come, in all places, on Paramount Plus’s Star Trek series Discovery, and it’s that role that points the way to Yeoh’s work in Everything Everywhere All At Once.

Yeoh plays starship captain Philippa Georgiou, a mother figure to the series’ lead Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). In the two-part series opener, Georgiou is killed and then eaten (off-screen, thankfully) by Klingons, after Burnham more or less starts a war with them. But Yeoh returns midway through the first season as the Discovery is transported (via its mushroom-powered engine. . . seriously) into another dimension. In this universe, Georgiou is the Emperor of the humans (Terrans), a brutal, racist regime that terrorizes the entire galaxy. One thing leads to another, and when Discovery returns to its own universe, they bring Georgiou along with them, if for no other reason than one would have to be insane to write Michelle Yeoh off of your TV show. As a morally flexible go-getter with a real knack for inflicting violence, this new Georgiou is a natural for Starfleet’s black ops organization, and through the show’s second season her missions move in parallel to the Discovery’s, with Yeoh always popping up at key moments to roll her eyes at Star Trek’s liberal pretensions (her comic timing is as accomplished as her stunt-work) and share some genuinely weird yet touching moments with her cross-universe daughter-figure.

At this point, I’ve only seen two of Discovery’s four seasons, but it seems safe to say that dual identities are the driving motif of the series. There are two Georgious of course, but every other major character (and several minor ones) are similarly split and/or doubled. Burnham is human but was raised Vulcan; the perky young Ensign Tilly is a murderous captain in the other universe; a trusted captain and father figure turns out to be the bad guy; Burnham’s human romantic interest is literally merged with a Klingon in a surgical procedure that I don’t even want to imagine; the chief engineer merges with his mushroom drive while his boyfriend dies and is then resurrected by those same fungi, only to struggle with alienation from his own new body. The list goes on and on. Discovery is about this kind of alienation, the struggle to reconcile different versions of your self. This subtext is the text of Everything Everywhere All At Once.

Yeoh plays a Chinese immigrant who owns a dry cleaners. She has a husband (the wonderful Ke Huy Quan, making his long-awaited return to movie stardom), who loves her but also serves her with divorce papers; a put-upon daughter (Stephanie Hsu); a cantankerous elderly father (the great James Hong); and a demanding IRS auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis). In the middle of an impossible audit she finds it difficult to pay attention to, Yeoh is whisked into another universe by an alternate version of her husband, who warns her that trouble is coming and teaches her how to shift universes herself. With each shift she acquires the memories and skills of the Michelle Yeoh in that universe, which proves helpful when she’s immediately attacked by alternate versions of the people she knows, all under the command of an alternate version of her daughter, who is upset because she can see, ahem, everything everywhere all at once had has concluded that the universe is meaningless. As all children do, she blames her mother for this.

The first roughly two-thirds of the movie teaches Yeoh (and us) the rules of the film’s conceit, while flashing through various worlds, some of which are mostly normal, some of which are deeply silly. One of the primary worlds we spend time in is inspired by Yeoh’s own life, in that in that universe she’s a famous star of martial arts movies. But the origin is different (she learns real kung fu, not just movie moves) and eventually it turns into an extended visual riff on In the Mood for Love (the newer, greener version), a Hong Kong movie which Yeoh did not appear in. This seems like a missed opportunity, and it’s not the only one in a chaotic movie that’s as frustrating and slap-dash as it is funny and genuinely clever. A more coherent movie might have really committed to a meta-analysis of Yeoh’s personal history and star persona, but such a film probably wouldn’t have also given us a universe where humans have hot dogs for fingers and thus play the piano with their feet. I think that’s pretty funny, so it might be a fair trade.

As it is, the film is remarkably consistent with Yeoh’s recent work. The self-divided characters of Discovery are multiplied to infinity, as every cast member gets to play several distinct versions of their self, sometimes heroic, sometimes depressed, sometimes whiny, sometimes vicious and cruel, sometimes inanimate. The daughter’s dilemma is partially this kind of alienation: if she has infinite selves, then what does it mean to be herself? This echoes the trauma of Discovery’s doctor, who’s been reassembled like the Ship of Theseus, as well as that of Emilia Clarke’s character in Last Christmas, who has felt alienated from her body since receiving a heart transplant and is also haunted by the handsome and charming spirit of the owner of said heart, in another kind of doubling self.

Directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert devise a clever metaphor for the daughter’s existential angst: she sees the multiverse as an everything bagel, a black disc with an emptiness at its center. Yeoh’s response, once she figures out that the real crisis isn’t cosmic but in fact couldn’t be more intimate, is to counter the bagel with her husband’s goofiness, embodied by the little plastic googly eyes he enjoys sticking in unexpected places. The combination of the two makes a whole: black torus in a white field filled in by a black iris, an empty everything made whole by whimsy. But neat as that is, it doesn’t line up with what, after a lengthy winding-down of the film’s action, amounts to the moral of the story, the thing that finally breaks the daughter out of her multiverse-destroying depression. The real Everything, it turns out, is Love.

I think the profusion of multiverse narratives in recent years has something to do with social media, in the way the virtual reality movies in the late 90s had something to do with the initial spread of the internet. If we define ourselves in relation to the people around us, and I think we do, then the ways social media connects us to so many other people around the world all at once can’t help but be overwhelming. When I was young, I knew the thoughts and opinions of maybe 20 people on a regular basis. I would define myself as part of this group or in opposition to that group, but there were always a limited number of choices. I could spend the rest of my time doing other stuff than worrying what other people thought about the world or other people or me. Now, every minute of every day I have access to what anyone the world over thinks about any given thing. There’s a seeming infinite variety of ways I can look at the world, the people in it, and myself. It’s dizzying and in its sheer scale, awe-inspiring and more than a little intimidating. Because there’s so much, every thing, every experience, seems that much less important, less real, less meaningful. I’d suggest that these narratives reflect our trying to sort through this phenomenon, our collective attempts to understand ourselves in relation to everyone, not just our close circles of friends and family, or at least cope with the vertigo caused by knowing way to much about what people think about things.

To combat the alienation induced by what that master of multiversal filmmaking Hong Sang-soo calls “infinite worlds possible” Everything Everywhere All at Once suggests we choose to scale back our lives to those same close circles, by remembering that the foundation of our self is our relation to the people immediately around us: our parents, our friends, our children. In doing so, it weirdly echoes the awkwardly phrased sentiment Clarke gives at the end of Last Christmas. After a year of drunken floundering in her interpersonal relationships and subpar customer service work, she has been inspired by her heart-ghost to take up charity work with the homeless and puts on a benefit concert for them (she sings the Wham! classic that gives the film its title and was the inspiration for Emma Thompson’s screenplay). But before she sings she takes to the stage and explains for us all what she has learned, “We are so lucky to be alive. We are so lucky to be able to help each other. . . . The reason we are lucky is because helping each other is what makes us happy.”

1. Chu, Donna and Janice Chow. “Michelle Yeoh: A Heroine On and Off Screen.”  A Different Brilliance—The D & B Story. Translated by Donna Chin. Edited by Kwok Ching-ling and Wong Ha-pak, The Hong Kong Film Archive, 2020.

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