What else can you say about Michelle Yeoh except wow! That beautiful, expressive face and those stunning martial arts moves have given her well deserved international stardom.
Born Yeoh Chu-Cheng in the Malaysian mining town of Ipoh in 1962, Yeoh began learning ballet at the age of four, and later moved to London to take her master’s degree in ballet at the Royal Academy of Dance. An active, athletic girl, she also competed in squash, swimming and diving events.
Ironically, an injury to her spine put an end to her ballet career, and set her on the road to martial arts fame – where, like Jackie Chan, she would become known for performing her own stunts, and sustain many more injuries.
At 21, Yeoh returned to Malaysia where her mother entered her in a beauty contest. Although reluctant to take part, Yeoh won the title of Miss Malaysia. This led to several TV commercials in Hong Kong, where she appeared with action stars like Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat and to a contract with Hong Kong’s D&B Films.
Now Yeoh’s career took a sharp turn. Her ballet training was her biggest asset in becoming an action star. Although she has never trained as a martial artist, a combination of dance moves and on set choreography helped her martial arts scenes with the grace and agility of the mostly male stars of the genre.
“ If you’re a woman, you have a much harder ground to break, first of all to convince a male that you can, you’re able and physically adept to do all these kinds of movements,” she said.
In Hong Kong, Yeoh ran into the language stumbling block that has hamstrung so many Chinese actors’ careers in the west – except that it was not English this time, but Chinese that she could not speak. In spite of being born of Chinese parents, Yeoh grew up in Malaysia, and learned English and Malay as her first languages. But her obvious talent as an action star made it no barrier at all – Yeoh eventually learned to speak Chinese, but still needs a Chinese language script read to her, as she cannot read it.
Yeoh was known as Michelle Khan in her early film career. She made her debut in The Owl and Bumbo in 1984, moving rapidly up the ladder to star in her own films. She was the only woman Jackie Chan allowed to perform her own stunts, and like him, she has a long list of `war wounds’, including a near fatal accident while filming the ironically titled The Story of a Stunt Woman when she fell 18 feet from a bridge. She landed on her head and doctors feared she would not walk again. But Yeoh’s ability to shrug off injuries is as legendary as Jackie Chan’s, and she took on the role of Wai Lin in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies.
Yeoh was already well known to western fans of Hong Kong martial arts movies when she was cast as a Bond Girl. Starring opposite Pierce Brosnan, she played a Chinese Army agent and took the concept of Bond Girls to a whole new level, proving to be one of the most popular of this cinematic tradition.
But it wasn’t until director Ang Lee cast her as one of the unrequited warrior lovers in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon that western audiences first saw the true depth and scope of Yeoh’s acting ability. It was no surprise to her legions of Asian fans, who had already seen her give fine performances in movies like The Soong Sisters. Banned by the Chinese Government because it was a real life story of powerful sisters who became Enemies of the State, the film went on to win five Hong Kong film awards in 1998.
In Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Yeoh combined her acting skills with her martial arts skills to create the unforgettable character of Yu Shu Lien, who with her unspoken love Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) goes in search of the Green Destiny, a mystical sword stolen by Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang). Her fantastic martial arts work on the movie led to another knee injury.
Yeoh achieved all this after a comeback worthy of any in the film industry. In 1988 she retired from films to concentrate on her marriage to Dickson Poon, the head of D & B films, at his request. Three years later she divorced Poon and returned to films, where she was welcomed rapturously by her martial arts fan base.
Today, Yeoh is involved with Ferrari Formula One team manager Jean Todt, and although she is said to be sporting a big diamond ring, has told the media she has no plans to remarry.
Yeoh’s career continues to go from strength to strength, particularly in the west. She starred with Ziyi Zhang in the Memoirs of a Geisha, which was panned in Japan because it used Chinese actors in Japanese roles, and banned in China for fear of causing trouble with Japan. Yeoh shrugs off the controversy with her typical forthright attitude, saying it’s no different to hiring English actors to play a German or an American.
“Actors are chosen for their ability to be the character,” she said.
But she did admit that learning to walk in a tight fitting geisha outfit took even more discipline than learning martial arts. She had to wear a kimono around the house until it became second nature to walk with the tiny steps required.
Yeoh has formed her own production company called Mystical Films and released her first movie under that banner in 2002, called The Touch. She turned down the role of Seraph in the two Matrix sequels to concentrate on getting her first production off the ground.
Future film plans include Hua Mulan, a live action version of the Chinese legend released in animation by Disney in 1998, and the tentatively titled Sunshine, a futuristic story about mankind fighting to save its dying sun.
But one ambition remains unfulfilled to date.
I’d jump at the chance of doing another Bond movie,” she said in an interview.It was so much fun.”
Gail Kavanagh 2006