We Can’t Get Enough of Michelle Yeoh
Michelle Yeoh has performed in 49 films over the course of 40 years. Six of those were released in 1993 alone, meaning that she appeared onscreen every other month on average that year. Since her first television commercial in 1984 (for Guy Laroche watches with the already-famous Jackie Chan), she has performed in a broad spectrum of big-screen roles and on five television series. Her most recent performance, as Evelyn Quan Wang in Everything Everywhere All at Once, took her career to a whole new multiverse.
In 2023, Michelle Yeoh made history when she became the first Malaysian and the second Asian woman to win a Golden Globe Award. She then became the first Asian woman to win a Screen Actors Guild award. Most prominently on a global stage, she became the first Asian woman—and only the second woman of color—to receive an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Lead Role.
Blessedly, Michelle Yeoh has seven more appearances on her schedule between 2023 and 2026 (spoiler alert: two are Avatar sequels). Here are 12 of her best films to date and where to watch them!
12) The Heroic Trio (1993)
In this exhilaratingly wild film directed by Johnnie To, Michelle Yeoh plays Ching “The Invisible Woman” alongside Anita Mui as Tung “The Wonder Woman” and Maggie Cheung as Chat “The Thief Catcher.” The Heroic Trio follows the superheroes as they fight against a subterranean villain known only as the Evil Master who kidnaps newborn babies destined to become emperors. If this premise sounds like a ’90s fighting game come to life, or an anything-can-happen modern martial arts fantasy, or a hidden gem of Hong Kong action cinema, that’s because it is. It is all three of those things. Now streaming on The Criterion Channel.
11) Executioners (1993)
The sequel to The Heroic Trio, Executioners reunites Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui, and Maggie Cheung as the glamorous and unflinching superhero team. Although the films were released only seven months apart, 10 years have passed in the story space. During that time, each character has developed in unexpected ways that make their reunion in a dystopian future all the more challenging. Handguns and other ballistic weapons are more prominent than martial arts fight choreography this time, but the performances by the leading women are just as captivating as they were in the original. Now streaming on The Criterion Channel.
10) Butterfly and Sword (1993)
An adaptation of the novel Liuxing Hudie Jian by Gu Long, this wuxia film features Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung, Donnie Yen, Joey Wong and Jimmy Lin. Unrequited love and romantic devotion are punctuated by action sequences, including a character shooting himself as a human arrow through his own giant bow (while carrying a sword) and an instantaneous decapitation with a silken sash. Beautiful, bloody, whimsical, and chaotic, one of the most memorable aspects of Butterfly and Sword is watching highly skilled actors like Yeoh performing wild fantasy action with a sense of glee. Now streaming on Prime Video.
9) Wing Chun (1994)
In this martial arts film directed and produced by Yuen Woo-ping (fight choreographer for The Matrix and Kill Bill among many others), Michele Yeoh plays Yim Wing-Chun. She is the keeper of her family’s tofu shop and is the only person who stands up to bandits and thieves in her mountain village. Yeoh is joined by Donnie Yen, Waise Lee, and Cheng Pei-pei in an adventure story infused with humor that centers on women’s resilience. The real martial arts style called wing chun is not used at all in this film. Instead, Woo-ping uses kung fu in the fight scenes, and the story by Elsa Tang and Wing-Fai Wong is more concerned with satirizing gender roles than in creating a historical document of Southern Chinese fighting styles. Now streaming on Prime Video.
8) Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Full of the usual James Bond themes—corrupt moguls, stealth ships, nuclear missiles, world domination—the eighteenth entry in the series is most memorable for featuring Michele Yeoh as Wai Lin. An agent of the Chinese Ministry of State Security and an ally to Bond (Pierce Brosnan), Yeoh’s progressive characterization subverted expectations of a Bond Girl, who were often little more than love interests who only incidentally advanced the plot. Although at the time, Brosnan described Yeoh as a “wonderful actress” who was “serious and committed about her work,” Yeoh recently revealed that the offers she received after playing a Bond Girl were regressive and stereotypical. It was not until her role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that she was again given the agency she deserved. Now streaming on multiple platforms.
7) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
One of Michelle Yeoh’s most iconic roles and one of director Ang Lee’s most celebrated films, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a multi-layered masterwork. Adapted from the fourth book of the Crane-Iron pentalogy by Wang Dulu, the title alludes to the Chinese expression that there might be masters in the midst who go totally unnoticed. Painterly cinematography, subtle details of costume design, and balletic fight choreography make this film visually unforgettable. Understated yet powerful performances by Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-fat, Zhang Ziyi, and Chang Chen make it magnificent. Yeoh reprises her role as Yu Shu Lien in the long-awaited sequel Sword of Destiny (2016), produced by and streaming exclusively on Netflix. Now streaming on The Criterion Channel.
6) Silver Hawk (2004)
Michelle Yeoh stars as Lulu Wong, who is also the masked superhero named Silver Hawk, in this martial arts film slickened with early 2000s visual style. The fashionable and soft-spoken Silver Hawk rides a motorcycle and practices martial arts with equal effortlessness—and in one sequence, she saves kidnapped pandas from poachers! Yeoh is also the producer of this campy, yet undeniably likable, kid-friendly action adventure. Now streaming on Prime Video.
5) Sunshine (2007)
This psychological science fiction film, written by Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle, tells the story of a crew who travel to Earth’s dying sun to try to reignite it. Although the story was inspired by the heat death of the universe, the cast and their characterizations keep the film consistently heated. Michelle Yeoh plays a biologist named Corazon, alongside Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, and Chipo Chung as the voice of the spacecraft’s onboard computer. The science component of the narrative is occasionally questionable, but as a whole, Sunshine is genuinely compelling and highly re-watchable. Now streaming on multiple platforms.
4) The Lady (2011)
The Lady is a biographical film directed by the French filmmaker Luc Besson, starring Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi, the real-life Burmese political leader, and diplomat, who was essential to Myanmar’s transition from military junta to democracy. She became the General Secretary of the National League for Democracy after the 8888 Uprising, but the military government refused to relinquish power, and she was placed under house arrest for almost 15 years. Yeoh portrayed one of the highest-profile political prisoners in modern history with a gracefulness and strength that she observed in the Lady herself when they met in 2010. Now streaming on multiple platforms.
3) Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
This adaptation of the satirical romance novel by Kevin Kwan was the first Hollywood film to feature an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club 25 years prior. It was an important moment for many Asian Americans, but its depiction of Singaporean culture was polarizing. Social critic and political activist Sangeetha Thanapal critiqued the casting that only included east Asian people. In reality, 15% of the population in Singapore are Malay and 7.5% are Indian. Director John M. Chu said, “We decided very early on that this is not the movie to solve all representation issues … This is a very specific movie, we have a very specific world, very specific characters.” Even considering criticisms of its representation, Michelle Yeoh is absolutely riveting as the antagonist Eleanor Young. Now streaming on multiple platforms.
2) Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
In the 25th entry in the MCU, Michelle Yeoh plays Ying Nan, the aunt of Simu Liu’s title character, alongside Awkwafina, Stephanie Hsu, Meng’er Zhang, Benedict Wong, Ben Kingsley, and Tony Leung. This adaptation of the Marvel comic went into development all the way back in 2001, but was not truly developed until writer Dave Callaham was hired in 2018, followed by director Destin Daniel Cretton in 2019. And in 2021, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings became the first film in the MCU with an actually Asian protagonist. It is also one of the strongest origin stories in the MCU, with plenty of narrative leeway for sequels and spin-offs. Now streaming on Disney+.
1) Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
The second film by Daniels embeds a dizzyingly diverse array of cinematic influences—yet there is nothing else like it anywhere. A unique hybrid of science fiction, martial arts, family drama, and romance, its kaleidoscopic points of view offer surprising insight into family relations, mother-daughter relations, and queerness. Its themes of predestination, inevitability, the aftereffects of choices, and the possibilities each person carries within themselves are too wild and beautiful to believe in some scenes. Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Quan Wang (and as real-life Executive Producer) deserves every accolade she has received. Now streaming on multiple platforms.
(featured image: A24)
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