Ten minutes into my conversation with Michelle Yeoh, there is a misunderstanding. We are discussing her character in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, an outrageously enjoyable new Marvel adventure about a San Francisco parking valet trying to ignore his destiny as a martial arts warrior. Yeoh plays Ying Nan, a beneficent gatekeeper who lives on the far side of an enchanted bamboo forest. Another character, played by Awkwafina, refers to Ying as “an awesome magical kung fu goddess”. When I mention this, Yeoh thinks Awkwafina made the remark about her. “Oh, that’s so sweet!" lei dice. “Of course, I already knew Awkwafina because we were both in Crazy Rich Asians.”
There’s no need to point out the error, because it is perfectly true: Yeoh really is an awesome magical kung fu goddess. No one would argue with that. Not the millions who gasped as she skipped nimbly up walls and across rooftops in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Nor the ones who flocked to her early Hong Kong action movies with the likes of Jackie Chan and Cynthia Rothrock. Not the ones who were first introduced to her in the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies. And certainly not Oliver Stone, who called her “a woman of elegance and magnificent grace – the young grande dame of Hong Kong cinema”. Nor Quentin Tarantino, who rushed to her bedside when she was in a body cast for a dislocated neck and cracked rib sustained after falling 18ft on to her head while filming The Stunt Woman in 1996. “He insisted on seeing me and sat on two pillows at my feet and recounted my movies frame by frame,” she later said.
The macho stunt men who frequented the Hong Kong gym where she trained in the early 1980s didn’t think she was a magical awesome kung fu goddess though, at least not at first. To them, this winner of the Miss Malaysia beauty pageant was just some girl, five-foot-four and slender as a bookmark. “They literally folded their arms, stood back and watched me. ‘This little thing wants to do all this?’ But I followed them move for move. I was in that gym 8.30am until sundown every day.”
Born Yeoh Chu-Kheng to an affluent Chinese-Malay family in Ipoh, Malaysia, Yeoh came to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dance, only to suffer a back injury at the age of 16 that put paid to her dreams of a ballet career. Her doctor asked if she had considered pursuing another discipline. Her principal explained to her that there were other ways to express physicality beyond ballet. It took her a moment to realise that they weren’t joking.
She became an actor before she was an action hero but it was in her first fighting role – as a cop on the trail of a microfilm in the 1985 barnstormer Yes, Madam! – that she found what she was looking for: a replacement for the career she’d had to surrender. “I just needed to learn to transfer the energy, because a lot of times in dance it’s very inward and contained. Action is more about how you deliver that energy, pushing it forward.”
Her work in Yes, Madam! is eye-popping even today, especially the climax in which she sends numerous adversaries (and herself) flying into the air and crashing through glass. One stunt finds her flinging two opponents to their doom while hanging upside down from a balcony, the glass panels of which she has head-butted to smithereens. “One take!” she says triumphantly. Then in a softer voice: “Thank God it was only one.”
Stunts are still part of her repertoire today. The actor, who is now 59, has some light combat duties in Shang-Chi, as well as in another new film, Gunpowder Milkshake, in which she plays one of a trio of veteran assassins. What’s changed? “When we first started in Hong Kong, you didn’t have help from CGI. You just went out and did what you had to do.” That includes the still-dazzling sequence in Supercop, her 1992 film with Chan, in which she performs a motorcycle jump on to a moving train. “I felt invincible," lei dice.
Chan once pleaded with her not to perform those crazy stunts. “I told him, ‘You’re a fine one to ask me to stop! You’re always doing them.’ He said, ‘That’s because when you do one, I have to go one better.’ The pressure was on him, poor dude.” Is it true he thinks women belong in the kitchen rather than in action movies? “He used to," lei dice. “Until I kicked his butt.”
Supercop was her comeback film following a break of four years: she had quit acting at the request of her then-husband, the billionaire studio head Dickson Poon. When I first met Yeoh in 2008, she patiently explained her choice: “It wasn’t a hard decision," lei disse, “because I saw marriage as a full existence … Maybe it comes from the Asian culture, but my thinking was that I couldn’t be running around all over the world jumping off buildings if I was going to give my marriage 100%.”
She and Poon divorced in 1992; a decade later, she got engaged to the French motor racing executive Jean Todt. “Nineteen years ago," lei dice. And still no wedding? “We’ve been threatening to get married for such a long time. Sometimes we say, ‘Wait, didn’t we already do it?’” Evidently, they both have commitment issues. “Oh stop!" lei dice.
Actually, it’s easy to believe they simply haven’t found the time. Todt is constantly working – she has referred to him as “the machine that’s always on” – while Yeoh has had her plate full, pure, what with playing the indomitable Emperor Philippa Georgiou on Star Trek: Discovery since 2017, and shooting four Avatar sequels back-to-back.
She is all in favour of sequels, and even puts me straight, politely but firmly, when I suggest that it was a mistake to make a follow-up to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (the lacklustre Sword of Destiny) nel 2016. “I don’t think it’s ever a mistake to do a sequel. It just means you love a project so much. Sequels are great. I hope we do another Shang-Chi!"
For now, that is in the hands of the box-office gods. But what about a sequel to The Lady – Luc Besson’s 2011 film that starred Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi – after its subject’s spectacular and shocking fall from grace? “That is an interesting idea," lei dice. “Is there more of a story to tell? I think it’s evolving as we speak.” How did she feel as the woman she helped celebrate in Besson’s movie was accused of turning a blind eye to genocide? “I have been very disappointed and taken aback," lei dice. There is the faint sound of eggshells crunching under foot.
One character she would have no compunction about reprising is Eleanor Young, the quietly intimidating matriarch of the smash-hit 2018 commedia Crazy Rich Asians about a Chinese-American woman (Constance Wu) facing disapproval from her new boyfriend’s wealthy family in Singapore. “That was such a gamechanger for the Asian community," lei dice. “Shang-Chi is something different: it doesn’t change the game but it endorses and cements what belongs in our community. What was amazing in Crazy Rich Asians was being able to represent that culture in Asia itself, rather than in Britain or America.”
In the most memorable scene, Young puts her son’s girlfriend firmly in her place. Encountering her at the top of the stairs during an impossibly opulent family shindig, she sizes her up, touches her cheek, and dispenses a devastating five-word critique. Yeoh repeats it with me – “You will never be enough” – then laughs wickedly. “I’ve had men and women come up to me and tell me, ‘I’m so scared of you.’ I love that!"
Did she understand Young’s protectiveness? “Oh yeah. Originally, she was just written as mean. But the rest of the world would just say, ‘Uh-oh. Asian tiger mom.’ It’s not that superficial. She wasn’t accepted by her own mother-in-law, and she had to fight to keep her family together. I see it all around me: the sacrifices women make. Sometimes it’s not appreciated. That’s very relatable to me, so I knew she was not this cold, cruel person.”
Comunque, that scene on the stairs left Wu an emotional wreck, and the director Jon Chu terrified. “Jon told me, ‘Oh my God, your eyes went black!’ I was like, ‘Really?’ That sounds evil. And I’m not evil.” She weighs up her options. "Voglio dire, I could have pushed her down the stairs, giusto?” Save that one for the sequel.