Malaysian acting legend Michelle Yeoh has played many different characters, from a fearless inspector and a female wuxia warrior to an intimidating matriarch and an inspiring captain of a spaceship
Newly crowned Icon Of The Year 2022 by Time magazine, Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh is certainly adding weight to the Oscar buzz. The 60-year-old has been receiving rave reviews for her recent projects, in particular Everything Everywhere All at Once, an indie science fiction-action-comedy-drama in which she plays Evelyn Wang, a dissatisfied and overwhelmed laundromat owner who is swept up in an insane adventure to save the multiverse.
While absurdist (and some say utterly hard to follow), the mind-bending film received widespread critical acclaim for its imagination, visual effects, humour, direction, and editing, grossing US$103 million (about RM454 million) worldwide and sweeping up 16 awards to date. Yeoh's performance cemented her position as a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood.
Yeoh is known for being a beacon of Asian representation, welcoming and inspiring a new generation of fans. In our universe, the Ipoh-born star has been a household name spanning decades, with an impressive portfolio boasting a smorgasbord of acting roles.
Here, we pick 10 of her most iconic roles.
Yes, Madam! (1985)
In Yes, Madam!, Yeoh stars as senior police inspector Ng who teams up with inspector Carrie Morris (Cynthia Rothrock) from Scotland Yard to investigate the murder of an agent from the Commercial Crime Bureau of London. Described as the first film of the 'girls with guns' sub-genre, the film was one of Yeoh's early works which earned her a nomination for Best New Performer at the 1986 Hong Kong Film Awards.
Police Story 3: Super Cop (1992)
In the action-packed Police Story 3: Super Cop, Yeoh takes on the role of Beijing-based Interpol inspector Yang Chien Hua/Hannah Lin. She teams up with daredevil Hong Kong detective Chan Ka Kui (Jackie Chan) to stop a Chinese drug czar.
The film sets the tone for Yeoh's future works as an action star as she displayed breathtaking stunt work, from dangling off a speeding van to dropping off of a bus and onto a car that was being driven by Chan. In 2009, Quentin Tarantino named Police Story 3: Super Cop as one of his favourite films, adding that it features the "greatest stunts ever filmed in any movie ever".
The film marks Yeoh's return to acting after a hiatus.
Fun fact: A handful of scenes were shot in Kuala Lumpur such as the Sultan Abdul Samad Building and the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station.
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
In Tomorrow Never Dies, the 18th James Bond film, Yeoh plays Wai Lin, a skilled agent of the Chinese Ministry of State Security, who pairs up with Bond (Pierce Brosnan) to stop Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), a power-mad media mogul, from engineering world events to initiate World War III.
Not only did this mark the first time a Bond movie ever featured a Chinese Bond girl, Brosnan was also reportedly impressed with Yeoh, describing her as a wonderful actress.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one of the finest (if not the finest) wuxia films ever made in recent times. As female wuxia warrior Yu Shu Lien, Yeoh performed all her martial arts action scenes despite not being a trained martial artist. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was an overwhelming critical and commercial success internationally, winning over 40 awards and was nominated for 10 Oscars in 2001, the most ever for a non-English-language film at the time.
Yeoh alone was nominated for eight awards, including Best Actress in a Leading Role at the 2001 British Academy Film Awards.
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
For her role as Mameha in Memoirs of a Geisha, Yeoh showcased her acting chops as a prominent geisha who mentors a young geisha-in-training named Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi). Based on the bestselling novel by Arthur Golden and directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), the film received mixed reviews although it did win three Oscars including Best Costume Design.
Yeoh, however, exudes the beauty and grace her role called for, and contributes to her rise in popularity with the international audience.
The Lady (2011)
In The Lady, Yeoh stars as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The film follows Suu Kyi as she leads the military-ruled Myanmar's democracy movement and her relationships with her late husband Michael Aris (David Thewlis) and their two kids. Playing a non-fictitious role for the first time, Yeoh confessed that it was intimidating but that it was the role of a lifetime.
To prepare, she went through 200 hours of videos of Suu Kyi, spent months studying Burmese, trained to achieve a physique that is similar to Suu Kyi's, and even managed to visit her briefly in Myanmar during production. The end result is arguably one of Yeoh's most powerful and poignant performances to date.
Crazy Rich Asians (2016)
Crazy Rich Asians certainly does not need any introduction. As Eleanor Young, the wife of one of Singapore’s biggest developers, she’s wealthy, elegant, poised, and powerful. But as the Chinese tiger mom to Nick Young (Henry Golding), she is all our mothers (or grandmothers), able to make us quiver with a single, ice-cold glare.
Star Trek: Discovery (2017 – 2022)
Star Trek: Discovery follows the crew of the starship Discovery, beginning a decade before Star Trek: The Original Series in the 23rd century. Yeoh played two different roles: Captain Philippa Georgiou, the mentor to series lead Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a science specialist on Discovery who eventually becomes captain, and a dark Mirror Universe version of the character, Emperor Georgiou of the Terran Empire. Yeoh's performance was so celebrated that there are talks of her getting her own spinoff.
Fun fact: At the end of the finale of season one, Captain Philippa Georgiou mentions that she is from Pulau Langkawi, Malaysia.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
In Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Yeoh starred as kung fu goddess Ying Nan, a respected leader and gatekeeper of Ta Lo, a mystical city only accessible through a portal on the other side of an enchanted bamboo forest. Fellow cast member Simu Liu who portrayed the titular character praised her as an "elegant and graceful" martial artist, adding that she "exudes incredibly positive energy and lights up every single room she is in".
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings grossed over US$432 million (about RM1.9 billion) worldwide, making it the ninth-highest-grossing film of 2021. Yeoh was nominated for Best Actress in a Superhero Movie at the 2022 Critics' Choice Super Awards.
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
Everything Everywhere All at Once gifted audiences worldwide with a wonderful and wacky ride that became a surprising box-office hit. Every film and every project that she had accomplished seemed to have led her to play Evelyn Wang, who has to jump between parallel universes to connect with other versions of herself—including an international movie star and a martial arts hero—in an infinite multiverse. Yeoh was later quoted as saying: "I guess my 40 years of experience was like a long rehearsal for this movie."
The film, which originally premiered at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival in March 2022, opened to widespread acclaim with critics calling it "an inventive, big-screen experience".
On Rotten Tomatoes, it bagged an approval rating of 95 per cent based on 344 reviews with a consensus that reads: "Led by an outstanding Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once lives up to its title with an expertly calibrated assault on the senses". For her role, Yeoh won 'Best Actress - Motion Picture - Musical/Comedy' at the 2023 Golden Globes, a first for a Malaysian.
Now, let the best actress Oscar race begin!