Okay I didn’t like actually meet her, but you get what I mean.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is out now and my girl Michelle Yeoh IS IN IT. Technically, she’s been in the MCU twice now, so even better.
In Shang-Chi she’s in the saga properly as a mentor to Simu Liu’s title character, and it’s part-passing of the baton from one action star to another, but also an opportunity to have a renowned international figure in your movie. There’s a very cheap way to have done a movie like Shang-Chi *cough cough Iron Fist*. So when you cast somebody like Michelle Yeoh, it’s a very clear statement on how serious the filmmakers are taking this.
As someone who grew up idolizing Police Story 3: Super Cop… yeah, I read that loud and clear.
We all met Michelle Yeoh in different ways. Some first saw her as an ass-kicking Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies, others saw her in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Or you never heard of her until Crazy Rich Asians, which might’ve had you discovering her filmography in reverse. No judgements, all respect here.
Not to brag, but my first experience with Michelle Yeoh went a little something like this:
You felt that, didn’t you? The moves, the speed, the clarity. The power. This is basically the role that had everyone fan-casting her as Chun-Li before fan-casting became a thing.
Rewinding the clocks back, this was 1992 – the third movie in Jackie Chan’s groundbreaking Police Story saga. Yeoh plays Inspector Yang, Jackie Chan’s superior whom provides him with an undercover alias as he infiltrates a notorious drug lord’s operations in Hong Kong. Unbeknownst to Chan’s character, she’ll be undercover alongside him as his sister Hua where she’ll play just as critical of a role in the criminal takedown as much as him.
The movie plays on Chan’s arrogance and expectation of women. She’s his superior with the command of an entire battalion under her belt, and then she’s working undercover as his younger sibling. Jackie eats up the opportunity – pinching her cheeks, patting her on the head, bossing her with abandon.
Forty minutes in, Chan has clearly underestimated her, as shown in his bewilderment in the above clip. It’s the first time he realizes how formidable and resourceful she is. When the sting operation doesn’t go according to plan, she races and brawls just as fast as him – if not faster – and balances the odds in their favor.
Police Story 1 & 2, Chan is essentially a one-man army taking on waves of bad guys and barely making it out alive. By the time we get to Police Story 3, the setup and stakes are so ridiculously high that he cannot possibly do this on his own. Twice through, he’s lucky. Three times? He might as well be wearing tights and a red cape.
What makes Jackie Chan’s movies so endearing is that he’s not afraid to show that his characters are painfully human. He gets tired, he’s afraid, he’s humbled, and often sidetracked. Him genuinely needing a partner adds another layer, similar to Yeoh’s character begrudgingly needing his help to take down a mob boss too.
By no means does this make Michelle a sidekick, someone reduced to quips or a punctuation mark in the action. She’s right there with Chan as they realize how in over their heads they are with the whole operation. He calls her clumsy. She says he’s clumsier.
Heck, when their mission brings them to a hotel where Chan’s own girlfriend is working as a tour guide thus threatening his cover and her safety, Michelle is very much a part of the bit as Jackie. Situations escalate far beyond their control, and it’s up to the two of them to tip the scales.
When a drug deal goes bad, Yeoh finds out that the bulletproof vest she’s wearing is partly laced with dynamite. There’s tension amidst the explosions and ensuing shootout. As it is in Jackie Chan’s movies, there’s always room for comedy. Chan hides behind her as protection, and Yeoh tries to hide behind Chan who’s also vulnerable. The action is relentless and pulse-pounding, but it all unfolds through the lens of an endearing buddy-cop comedy and done in the clear visual language that we see in Pixar movies.
By the time we get to the white-knuckle finale, Jackie and Michelle are on firm equal footing that the movie doesn’t pause the action to damsel one or the other. If one of them is briefly incapacitated, the other carries on dutifully, knowing the other can take care of themselves and will catch up in due time. At a certain point in the chase, they don’t need to verbalize this or what needs to be done to stop the bad guys. They proceed to stop them any way they can, often making it up as they go. There’s no clear-cut plan to fall back on; just an overriding objective to do what’s necessary.
If Michelle Yeoh has to leap onto a speeding van because Jackie is caring to his injured girlfriend, THEN SHE GOES FOR IT. If she has to steal a motorcycle and ramp it onto a moving train, THEN YOU BETTER BELIEVE SHE DID THAT SHIT. Yeoh did all of her own stunts in Police Story 3. My girl knew she was starring alongside Jackie Chan and she didn’t back down from the challenge.
The endlessly raw appeal of Chan’s movies and Hong Kong cinema in the 80s and 90s was that there were no stunt doubles, no trailers for the actors to catch breaks or get pampered; no wires or the kind of safety precautions that Hollywood makes to protect their stars, and their filmmaking solutions were – much like Chan and Yeoh’s characters – harried and improvised.
The actors performed the stunts themselves. It helped that they themselves were stunt crews, so some of the acting leaves some to be desired. But when you’ve got such committed performers throwing themselves off choppers, buildings, off tightrope situations, who the fuck cares. It’s “sit back, relax, and hold on for dear life” cinema.
I wince at the notion of movies that implore you to “turn your brain off” because I for one think it’s fun to ponder how the hell they pulled off these sequences. I firmly believe something can both entertain you AND engage you. My mind goes BERSERK just thinking about how Yeoh must’ve been death-gripping that van, or how she mustered the spirit of her ancestors to go for that motorcycle jump. Sure, the trick of editing is hard at work, but that’s hardly a diss on either her or Chan’s contributions because that’s still them performing the action.
I can tell you right now, I would’ve never done that shit. As much as I love movies, I’d never risk my life for them. (Give the responsibility to my stunt double while I chill in my Winnebago.) The falls Yeoh takes feel legitimately bruising because, well, they were. It’s that level of commitment I have the utmost respect for. Because they don’t need to be doing this at the level that they’re doing it. They could’ve used tighter frames and closeups to cheat these stunts. But NO; it’s all wide angle lenses and you never miss a beat of the action.
It’s all Yeoh, all the time, all in camera for the world to see—and for any potential haters to kindly shut the fuck up. You think a woman belongs in the kitchen? Behind a desk? You don’t think a woman can kick the shit outta you or do her own stunts?
Michelle Yeoh did this in the 90s, and my eyes as well as my heart have never been the same.
Get that Disney paycheck, queen. It’s hardly enough.