Michelle Yeoh Never Dies
Text © 1998 Chris Ereneta | Pictures © Other People
(Updated 1999, 2000, 2001)

I'm no fan of Hong Kong cinema. Many of its hallmarks: guns firing endless rounds of ammunition, stylishly cool gangsters, violently sexualized images of women, and martial artists flying through the air hold no interest for me. Much American appreciation of "Asian Trash Cinema" seems to me adolescent male geekdom, making the fetishization of "exotic" violent women somehow more disturbing, with a lingering undercurrent of white supremacist patriarchy. As our (white, male) entitlement to the free consumption of white women's bodies diminishes in a culture altered (if only slightly) by feminist thinking, we revert our gaze to our historic "alternative" entitlement--the consumption of "uncivilized" non-white women.

Which makes even more problematic the question of an ostensibly white male such as myself creating a fan appreciation page for a Hong Kong movie star like Michelle Yeoh.

[ Discovery ]

The alternative press hype about Jackie Chan had begun to sink into my consciousness, even before Chan's late-90s attempt to crack the U.S. market, Rumble in the Bronx. A new-found appreciation for Buster Keaton made me open to investigating this self-proclaimed Keaton disciple. I made the mistake of renting an early Chan work to start -- a martial arts feature you might see any weekend night on an Asian UHF station. I followed this with Police Story, noted by something I'd read as the first in Chan's signature cop action-comedies. While the stunt sequences were indeed impressive, Chan's goofy mugging (not learned from Keaton) detracted from my enjoyment of even the best acrobatics.

So it was in late July of 1996, seeking a midweek late night diversion, that I opted to give Chan another chance, with his newly released Supercop, playing at a theater minutes from my home. My movie-viewing life was changed in an instant when mid-film Chan's character is rescued by the woman who to that point had served as merely a comic foil to his constant hamming (the role assigned to women in every Chan film).

Powerful, focused, in complete control of her body, she dispatched her opponents without a hint of smugness, showiness, brutality, or affected nonchalance -- without needing to rely on editing to make her look more capable. In one hand-to-hand combat scene she was able to do what no action hero (from Fairbanks to Willis) had ever been able to do before -- make me want to be her.

Director Stanley Tong gave her multiple action sequences in the film, having her duke it out with the bad guys, side by side with Chan, all the way up to the final credits. She wasn't patronized for being a woman (except by Chan's character), nor exoticized for being Asian (among an Asian cast). So revolutionary was this portrayal of a woman in comparison to Hollywood's white supremacist dick-worshipping homoeroticism (in which the woman is tied up, killed, or otherwise discarded so that our hero can "get it on" with the villain in the end) that I couldn't shut up about it for weeks afterward.

[ History ]

A perfunctory addition to the Police Story franchise (the 3rd in the series), Supercop (1993) was designed less as a Chan vehicle than as the comeback film for Michelle Yeoh (here billed as Michelle Khan), whose film producer husband had convinced her to retire from acting in her late twenties. Prior to that she had been Hong Kong's highest grossing female action star, with only three starring roles to her name.

A trained dancer, Yeoh became notable not merely for her mastery of martial arts choreography, but also for her willingness to perform her own stunts, including the showstopper in Supercop, when she jumps a dirt bike onto a moving train. A favorite bit of apocrypha suggested that her proclivity for extreme action made it difficult for her to secure insurance in Hong Kong, an economy (formerly) so capitalist that the same film would often be released 3 or 4 times with different titles and promotion campaigns, if they producers thought a buck could be made somewhere. Her legend was further enhanced when she nearly paralyzed herself jumping backwards off a bridge (and landing on her head) on the set of The Stuntwoman, a film based loosely on her own career.

With the release of Supercop in the United States, Yeoh joined the growing number of actors and directors from Hong Kong hoping to make it in Hollywood. Sadly, Miramax didn't treat her as a possible selling point for the film (perhaps they had data, but my guess is they fell back on old prejudices). She did manage to land a co-starring role in Tomorrow Never Dies, as the second butchest woman in the history of the James Bond franchise (props to Ms. Grace Jones). A limited edition action figure was released by a chain of toy stores, which I think borrowed a body from a Deanna Troi (Star Trek: The Next Generation) figure, and features an ill-fitting jumpsuit and (ugh) high heels. The figure can't stand even up by itself.

[ Rumination ]

Whether it is a cultural truism or merely a reality imposed by a media industry with economic figures to prove the case, American whites apparently have little interest in non-white protagonists. In big-budget studio productions, stories are most often told iconically, when a viewer is swept up into the film because s/he identifies with the protagonist. This iconic identification relies upon making the protagonist as unspecific as possible -- the more specific a character's attributes, you risk having more people dis-identify with the character. Thus big-budget stories and actors are painted in the broadest strokes, with everything descending to an unimaginative "norm"-- white, mostly male, privileged (or at least proudly working class), etc.

As Rusty Cundieff (Fear of a Black Hat, TV Nation) articulated in an interview on Fresh Air, black people, people of color, are used to projecting themselves into the stories of white people, because the only stories and images they have been exposed to all their lives have been white people's stories. White people, on the other hand, are far less able to iconically identify with characters of color, or with stories told in cultures (even within America) that are unfamiliar to them.

Black sports figures have done more, I think, to help white America experience iconic identification with people of color than Hollywood has. Since Jackie Robinson, black heroic figures have been visible for sufficient numbers of generations that now Hollywood can occasionally bank on a black actor in a leading iconic role. Will Smith, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington have reached this level of cultural acceptance. Of course we can't forget the true black television trailblazer: Bill Cosby (I Spy, The Cosby Show).

Again, it's not as though African American culture has been embraced by white supremacist America (outside of suburban white gangsta teeny boppers), it's that these particular figures' blackness has on some level been erased in the cultural consciousness.

Whether this is a positive or a problematic development (a life's work sorting out), much of American history, particularly in the last 150 years, has been about this journey of marginalized people towards the middle. Yet for every individual who makes it "in", whether they're black, or Irish, or Jewish, or gay, or a woman, there are countless more individuals and communities who remain on the outside.

The likelihood that Yeoh, now in her late thirties, can carve out a career in the U.S. seems sadly dubious, when even white women of her age have difficulty finding meaty roles (let alone action-packed ones). I'm envisioning she's got multiple possibilities in development, but I'm also guessing that the only ones likely to get funding will feature a white male star, and will emphasize her Asian Other-ness. From Hollywood's perspective, Americans can't picture Asians as Americans (note that Disney's major 1998 animated release featured a Chinese protagonist--a girl, no less--but the story remains set in China).

Niches of the straight-to-video action market could open themselves up to her -- the realm inhabited by her one-time costar Cynthia Rothrock. That's got to seem a low-rent prospect to a movie star of her status. Then there's syndicated television -- a Xena-like franchise. A show that stupid could at least guarantee her a steady paycheck. Xena was a bit of an accident, however, and -- you can call me a feminist paranoid, but -- there don't seem to be any other syndicated action-adventures popping up attempting to capitalize on the Xena audience....

Other women with power could help create opportunities for her. Sigourney Weaver could include her in the next film in the Alien franchise. Rosie O'Donnell -- a huge fan of Yeoh's -- could accomplish a great deal for her if she were only to wield her power in service of something other than overpriced Broadway musicals, Barbra Streisand records, or brands of snack food products.

UPDATE November 1999: Figure she's got a new -- or newly energized -- publicist. Yeoh appeared on a recent cover of Walking (?) magazine, the subject of a feature story about her career and the new "love of her life." There are Internet reports of an action film opposite Chow Yun-Fat, but I don't put much stock in what I read on the Internet.

UPDATE July 2000: The aforementioned film is called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, starring Yeoh and Chow and directed by Ang Lee. It is being released on the Asian market this summer, in the states at Christmastime. The video clips on the site show wire flying. Hoo freakin rah.

In what seems a promising development for Yeoh's American career, however, a dubbed version of Supercop 2 (see my comments below) has been released in the states on DVD and VHS, prominently featuring Yeoh on the cover. The dubbed re-release of Royal Warriors in the U.S. video market, on top of the success of Tomorrow Never Dies (cited as the highest grossing Bond movie of all time), has apparently made Yeoh enough of a commodity on the video shelf that her (nonsexualized) image is being allowed to lead this new release. (Too bad it isn't leading a better movie -- rent Supercop again instead.) Jet Li's American stardom is also lending a hand: Yeoh's image also appears on the cover of the dubbed American video re-release of Tai Chi Master (retitled Twin Warriors, for no reason I can comprehend). Figure all of this re-releasing activity is also a function of the Hong Kong action movie fans who've been craving DVD versions of the films they love--especially considering that previously available video copies were often poorly transferred, from scratched prints, and transferred to NTSC from PAL, washing out the colors even further. Some purists might object to the "cleanliness" of the new versions, but I wonder if those purists are a bit colonial in their attitudes--some of these movies are from the mid-1990s, with original production values equaling those of Hollywood. When the only available video copies make them look like late night UHF movies from the early 80s, it's not quaint. It's insulting. (Although, you might ask, what is it when the films are stripped of their original soundtracks and then redubbed in English along with musical scores more palatable to the American public...?) (Hey, I didn't say I *liked* these new versions...)

UPDATE February 2001: It's difficult to maintain my negative attitude in the face of the available evidence. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has become the highest-grossing foreign-language film in U.S. moviewatching history. And Yeoh shares the top of the bill in Sony's U.S. ad campaigns (in contrast to the Asian ads, in which she's clearly assigned less importance than Chow). The film has nabbed ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Foreign Film (the more likely winning category). The film ranks highest for the year in a concensus of critics' top ten lists, and director Ang Lee and the film have been racking up awards all season long. This too following the box office triumph (like it or no) of Charlie's Angels, co-starring Lucy Liu -- who would have believed that we'd see an Asian "Angel" before a black one?

Credit belongs in part to Sony Pictures Classics, which has spent millions selling this woman-centered, Mandarin-language epic to a mass American audience -- with 1800+ prints in U.S. theaters, even teenage mall viewers are being exposed to the film. They also spent huge sums promoting the film's artistic achievements to the sentimental yet xenophobic voting body of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The outstanding work of Lee, Yeoh, Chow, Zhang Zi Yi, Cheng Pei Pei, fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, composer Tan Dun, and cinematographer Peter Pau would have amounted to little in this country without that investment (although it still would have made the film an international blockbuster).

With Yeoh (and Zhang) tearing up U.S. movie screens to the tune of $86 million -- and counting -- we're as close as we may ever get to Michelle Yeoh's American golden age. Where it's heading? Hard to tell. Plenty of Internet rumors to suggest what Yeoh will be able to leverage with her new successes. You can keep reading them. Just let me know when Lee and Yeoh sign for the sequel.

In the meantime, I'm going to see Crouching Tiger again.

[ Witness ]

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon In Theaters Now Call me a victim of Hollywood mind control, but the direction, cinematography, fight choreography, editing, sound editing, and musical score of this film astonished me. The film's not perfect -- I find it lacking the emotional heft it strives to attain -- but the film's first action sequence -- beginning with Yeoh chasing Zhang Zi Yi across the rooftops and ending with their hand-to-hand fight in a cobblestone courtyard -- is. The first time I watched it I didn't know whether to burst into tears or applause. To hell with the wu xia purists. This is a must see.

Tomorrow Never Dies Even Blockbuster carries this, so it'll be easiest of Yeoh's movies to find. Unfortunately she doesn't appear for the first hour of the film, so if you don't like Pierce Brosnan as much as I do you might find it dragging. After that, she mostly gets to shine, even when she's being dragged around by Bond. At least until the ending, where after kicking ass in the engine room of the "stealth boat" (don't ask), she disappears and even gets tied up (blecch) while Bond completes the job. Jonathan Pryce, even more boring than in those Infiniti commercials, and Teri Hatcher as generic (even wan) "Bond girl." I do have to hand it to Brosnan, the first Bond to make it look like he's working for his pay. The final moments, when Brosnan and Yeoh share the obligatory kiss amidst floating wreckage, it feels kinda...gay. As if Bond and his American compadre Felix Lighter were falling into each others' arms. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Supercop (aka Police Story 3: Supercop) Dubbed. It's pretty likely your video store will have a copy of this. Get the widescreen DVD or laserdisc if you can. Neither a great movie nor a great Jackie Chan movie, and fans of Maggie Cheung will want to bury their heads in shame. But you'll see when watching this what makes Yeoh (billed here as Michelle Khan) an action star worthy to stand beside Stallone and Schwarzenegger (or, I would argue, in front of). Some of her best action sequences.

Royal Warriors (aka Yes Madam 2, In the Line of Duty 2) Subtitled. Recently released on video in the United States with new packaging, I've been surprised at the number of video stores stocking it. An older, poorly transferred letterboxed version is available at your specialty Hong Kong video stores. Extremely 80s in style, poorly edited, and featuring interminable scenes with an obnoxious co-star / love interest that had my companions and I screaming in frustration at the television. Still, Yeoh's action sequences in this film are incredibly aggressive and unrestrained. During her final fight with a chainsaw-wielding opponent in a utility shed she takes (and delivers) a pounding more brutal than anything I've seen on film.

Magnificent Warriors Her last film before her early retirement, this is a big budget ripoff of the Indiana Jones franchise, with Yeoh starring as a mercenary pilot (with a leather jacket and bullwhip) fighting the Japanese during their occupation of China during World War II. At this phase of her career she was still playing cutesy at times, but the action is top notch, and the story, characters, and direction make this film extremely accessible to a Western viewer. A terrific sequence has Yeoh squaring off against half of a Japanese battalion -- as preposterous as anything James Bond ever faced.

Wing Chun Subtitled. Like the late night UHF martial arts movies you've seen before, but with better production value (and a better video transfer). The first attempt by her to break into the American video market, with a quote on the package from Good Morning America calling her "Asian's Top Female Action Hero." The best gender dysphoria of any of her movies, as she assumes a male guise (and the trappings of a male protagonist). Also one of her few clear starring roles. Half mistaken-identity bedroom farce, half traditional martial arts narrative (lone warrior repeatedly defends self and small town from bandit terror, gets beaten by bandit master, takes time off to learn more skills and a new way of fighting, returns to defeat bandit master and run bandits out of town). A bit too much of the magical flying-through-the-air stuff for my taste, but it's nice that she can beat the pants off of her old boyfriend who doesn't recognize her (and that she leaves him back at the gate as she goes in to the bandits' compound for the final face-off).

Yes Madam I have no reports that this exists on video in the U.S. One student who wrote to me acquired a copy from Hong Kong through the "secondary" market. I got to see a film print. The predecessor to Royal Warriors, in this film Yeoh is teamed with Cynthia Rothrock, the American queen of martial arts B-movies. While Rothrock is certainly a capable martial artist, her bodily control seems as stiff to me as her acting. A forgettable crime lord story, ending with the pathetic destruction of a movie-facade house. But some great, raw, action sequences, in between attempts to make both heroes "cute."

Supercop 2 (aka Project S aka Police Story 4) The sequel to Supercop, focusing this time on Yeoh's character, and featuring bizarre cross-dressing cameos by Chan and "Uncle Bill" as a thin link to the previous Police Story movies. Unfortunately Yeoh is saddled with the dramatic hook that the man she loves is secretly in cahoots with the villains she is pursuing. That prolonged love story keeps the action from becoming particularly frequent or involved. A great leap off a building, and a couple of slick moves, but an unsatisfying viewing experience.

The Heroic Trio Subtitled. Her glossiest Hong Kong production, the Asian equivalent of a Joel Schumacher-directed Batman movie (the two most recent -- the ones everyone hated)(the ones I liked the most). Gratuitously staged, lit, costumed, photographed, and edited, this incomprehensible mess of a film is a big-budget showcase for Yeoh and two other Hong Kong movie stars: Maggie Cheung and Anita Mui. Sadly Yeoh's character, Invisible Girl, spends much of the film invisible (appropriately enough), and much of the remainder she spends sitting mournfully watching her boyfriend die a slow death. Mui and Cheung had far more interesting roles -- Cheung's performance went on to earn her both a world class role (in French filmmaker Oliver Assayas' Irma Vep) and a new husband (Oliver Assayas). It seemed while watching it that the entire production was an excuse to get these three women glammed up in capes walking together down a neon-lit, wind-machine blown street to a rock and roll soundtrack. I'm still so stupefied by this one that I haven't been able to sit down and watch the sequel, The Executioners, which I'm told makes even less sense.

Ah Kam, Portrait of a Stuntwoman
(aka The Stuntwoman) A drama based ever so loosely on Yeoh's own career, this yawner features her worst accident ever -- a missed jump off a freeway overpass -- and Hong Kong mainstay Sammo Hung (of late embarrassing himself on CBS' Martial Law). But the editing and overall pacing lurch around, adding up to not much. An interminable section of the film has Yeoh's character retiring from the stunt business and becoming slowly more and more bored in her new career in restaurant management.

The Tai Chi Master (aka Twin Warriors) Teaming up here with action superstar Jet Li, this is a substantial part (although clearly the 2nd banana), and she gets to do a lot of fighting. But damn, the slow motion and the flying stuff do so bore me. I couldn't have cared less about this film, and I can barely remember details from it now.

Butterfly and Sword Oh, the other Michelle Yeoh fan sites love this one. Probably the most advanced I've seen in the Hong Kong historical martial arts genre. Also the least comprehensible movie I've ever seen. My head still hurts.

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