To appreciate action cinema is to admire the physicality of the performer. Great action films continue to be made today, but sadly many of them rely on computer-generated imagery, which overpowers the presence of movie stars.
When an action film really works, the star becomes the special effect, and everything else feels secondary. There’s no doubt that Michelle Yeoh is one of the most significant action stars in cinema history. She began her career in martial arts films, and it wasn’t long before she was at the center of Hong Kong’s so-called boom years in the early 1990s.
Yeoh isn’t as popular or prolific as her male counterpart, Jackie Chan, but like him, she’s known for combining action and slapstick comedy in ways that are reminiscent of silent screen legend Buster Keaton. Most impressively, Yeoh does her own stunts, which brings an added level of danger to her work.
The best place to begin is Police Story 3 (1992), in which Yeoh stars opposite Chan as a policewoman who tries to take down a drug czar. The plot is inconsequential. What matters are the elaborate action sequences and the chemistry between Yeoh and Chan. Chan has had wonderful screen partners throughout his career, most notably Chris Tucker in Rush Hour (1998), but Yeoh is the only one who can outfight him.
There are a number of spectacular scenes in Police Story 3, but the one that stands out is the final “train scene,” in which Yeoh jumps a motorcycle onto a moving train. Quentin Tarantino has famously called this one of the greatest stunts in cinema history, and it’s awfully difficult to disagree with him. The sheer audacity of the attempt is admirable, and the fact that Yeoh pulls it off with such aplomb is even more amazing.
In an interview with The Guardian, Yeoh acknowledges the importance of an action star’s physicality: “Body language is more fascinating to me than actual language. Before you get into the mind, you have to inhabit the physicality. Body language is a great way of speaking.” Like the best action stars, Yeoh comprehends the significance of physical movement, and watching her fight on screen is like watching Ginger Rogers dance: simply beautiful.
Consider her performance in Wing Chun (1994), a lesser-known wuxia comedy. This time, she’s the main star, and she commands the screen with great force and intensity. The climactic scene, in which she goes toe-to-toe with Donnie Yen, is ferociously entertaining, and it illustrates Yeoh’s strength, agility, and knack for physical comedy.
Scenes like this were easy to take for granted in the 1990s, when Hong Kong action cinema reached its peak and American audiences were beginning to discover the best that the genre had to offer. However, they’re incredibly difficult to capture on camera, and they put most contemporary action stunts by Hollywood to shame. It’s no surprise that the success of Yeoh’s Hong Kong films landed her in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) as one of the more entertaining Bond girls in the franchise.
Tomorrow Never Dies isn’t a great Bond film, but Yeoh’s presence makes it worthwhile. In her first English-speaking role, Yeoh charms us with her wit, sex appeal, and kick-ass moves. She’s at once sweet and confrontational, and single-handedly steals the picture from Pierce Brosnan. When Brosnan lovingly referred to Yeoh as a “female James Bond,” I couldn’t help but wonder how much better Tomorrow Never Dies would be if Yeoh was actually given the Bond part.
To date, Yeoh’s most celebrated performance is in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), a beautiful wuxia film that many consider to be among the best. In the climactic scene, Yeoh faces off against younger Chinese actor Zhang Ziyi, surely one of the most exciting fight scenes ever choreographed.
What’s striking about this scene is watching one of cinema’s most influential action stars, Yeoh, fight against a newcomer at the time, Zhang. There’s a certain amount of self-reflexivity here, as if the stars are winking at the camera, aware that audiences are going to compare each of the women and see who comes out on top.
The scene ends with Yeoh as the clear winner, which solidifies her status as action cinema’s ultimate champion. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a love letter to Yeoh and all that she has given us over the years.
The proliferation of home video entertainment helped introduce Hong Kong action cinema to international audiences. Cinephiles from around the world discovered these films on VHS, DVD, and streaming services (and many sketchy bootlegs), long after they were released theatrically. It helps that celebrity auteurs like Tarantino consistently cite these films as major influences on his career.
Hong Kong action cinema from the boom years continues to appeal, decades later, because Hollywood action cinema has become CGI heavy, and fans are growing nostalgic for genre entries that emphasize performance and physicality. We continue to marvel at Yeoh because no one else can recapture her magic. The DC and Marvel Superhero franchise films present a spectacle, but the difference is that the stars are interchangeable. Scarlett Johansson is a great actor, but she doesn’t bring anything special to the Black Widow character. Any other actor could easily assume that role and nothing significant would change. You can’t say the same about Yeoh, whose presence is essential to her films’ very existence.
In a widely circulated essay, film scholar Tom Gunning defines the “cinema of attraction” as “a cinema that displays it visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator.” Although Gunning refers to early cinema and the contributions of the Lumière brothers and George Méliès, it’s appropriate to apply the concept more broadly. Any film that aims to amaze the viewer, including but not limited to special effects driven action films, can be situated within the “cinema of attraction.” Rather than follow a narrative of everyday life experiences, we focus our attention on the spectacular display of moving images, as if being at a circus show. In this regard, Méliès’ silent classic A Trip to the Moon (1902) is cinema of attraction, as is the 3D epic Gravity (2013).
So, too, are the many exhilarating action films that feature Yeoh. However, the attraction in this case is not some technologically advanced visual effect like the substitution splice or 3D, but the sheer star power of Yeoh, who astounds us with her physical presence. Whether she’s showing off a death-defying stunt or meticulously choreographed combat, she takes us out of the story and makes us wonder, with astonishment, “How the hell did she do that?” Watching Yeoh, we know that she’s presenting something unique that no one else in cinema can match.
In the pantheon of action stars, Yeoh raises the bar by combining stunt work, slapstick comedy, and sophisticated martial arts. She’s succeeded in an industry that lacks Hollywood’s safety guidelines, but like Hollywood, has been controlled by men.
Since Yeoh burst onto the scene nearly 30 years ago with that motorcycle in Police Story 3, she’s been in a class all by herself. We haven’t seen anyone like her since, and I doubt we ever will again.
The article has been modified from a previous version published in PopMatters.