Michelle Yeoh: ‘Jackie Chan thought women belonged in the kitchen – until I kicked her ass’ | Movie

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Ta few minutes after my conversation with Michelle Yeoh, there is a misunderstanding. We discuss his character in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, an incredibly enjoyable new Marvel adventure about a San Francisco valet trying to ignore his fate as a martial arts warrior. Yeoh plays Ying Nan, a beneficent guardian who lives on the other 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 point about her. “Oh, that’s so cute! ” she says. “Of course I already knew Awkwafina because we were both in Crazy Rich Asians.”

There is no need to point out the error, because it is perfectly true: Yeoh is truly an awesome magical kung fu goddess. No one would dispute that. Not the millions of people who gasped as she skipped walls and rooftops with agility in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Nor those who flocked to his first Hong Kong action films starring Jackie Chan and Cynthia Rothrock. Not those first introduced to him in the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies. And certainly not Oliver Stone, who called her “a woman of magnificent elegance and grace – the young grande dame of Hong Kong cinema”. Nor Quentin Tarantino, who rushed to her bedside while in a cast for a dislocated neck and cracked rib after falling 18 feet on her head while filming The Stunt Woman in 1996. “He did. insisted on seeing me and sat on two pillows at my feet and recounted my movies frame by frame, ”she later said.

The macho stuntmen who frequented the Hong Kong gymnasium where she trained in the early 1980s didn’t think she was a magical kung fu goddess, at least not at first. To them, this Miss Malaysia beauty pageant winner was just a five-foot-four, slender girl like a bookmark. “They literally folded their arms, stood back and looked at me. “Does this little thing want to do all that?” But I followed them movement for movement. I was in this gym from 8:30 am until sunset every day.

Awesome fighter… in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Photography: Marvel Studios / AP

Born Yeoh Chu-Kheng to a well-to-do Chinese-Malaysian 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 which ended to his ballet dreams. career. Her doctor asked her if she had considered pursuing another discipline. Her director explained to her that there were other ways of expressing physicality beyond ballet. It took a moment for him to realize that they weren’t kidding.

She became an actress before she was an action hero, but it was in her first role as a fighter – as a cop on the microfilm trail in the 1985 film, Yes, Madam! – that she found what she was looking for: a replacement for the career she had had to give up. “I just needed to learn to transfer energy, because often in dance, it’s very interior and contained. The action is more about how you deliver that energy, pushing it forward.

His work in Yes, Madam! is mind-blowing even today, especially the climax in which she sends many opponents (and herself) flying through the air and crashing through glass. A stunt finds her throwing two opponents to their doom as she hangs upside down from a balcony, shattering the glass panels. “A take!” she said triumphantly. Then in a softer voice: “Thank God it was one.”

The one-take wonder… preparing for a stunt in Tomorrow Never Dies.
The one-take wonder… preparing for a stunt in Tomorrow Never Dies. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy

Stunts are still part of his repertoire today. The actor, who is now 59, has a few light combat duties in Shang-Chi, as well as in another new movie, Gunpowder Milkshake, in which she plays one of the three veteran assassins. What changed ? “When we started in Hong Kong, you didn’t have help from CGI. You just went out and did what you had to do. This includes the ever-dazzling streak from Supercop, her 1992 film starring Chan, in which she jumps on a motorcycle onto a moving train. “I felt invincible,” she says.

Chan once begged her not to perform these crazy stunts. “I said to him, ‘You are nice to ask me to stop! You still do them. He said, ‘It’s because when you do one I have to get better.’ The pressure was on him, poor dude. Is it true that he thinks women belong in the kitchen rather than in action movies? “He used to do it,” she said. “Until I kick her ass.”

Supercop was her comeback film after a four-year hiatus: she had quit acting at the behest of her then-husband, the billionaire at the head of the Dickson Poon studio. When I first met Yeoh in 2008, she patiently explained her choice: “It was not a difficult decision,” she said, “because I saw marriage as a separate existence. whole… It might be from Asian culture, but I thought I couldn’t run around the world jumping buildings if I was going to give my wedding 100%.

She and Poon divorced in 1992; a decade later, she got engaged to French motor racing executive Jean Todt. “Nineteen years ago,” she said. And still no marriage? “We have been threatening to get married for so long. Sometimes we say, ‘Wait, haven’t we already?’ Obviously, they both have engagement issues. “Ah stop! ” she says.

In fact, it’s easy to believe that they just didn’t find the time. Todt is constantly working – she dubbed him ‘the always-on machine’ – while Yeoh also has his plate full, with the role of the Indomitable Emperor Philippa Georgiou in Star Trek: Discovery since 2017 and filming four sequels. of Avatar. back to back.

She’s all in favor of sequels, and even hands me off, politely but firmly, when I suggest it was a mistake to follow up on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (the lackluster Sword of Destiny) in 2016. “I don’t think it’s a mistake to do a sequel. It just means you love a project so much. The sequels are awesome. Hope we do another Shang-Chi! “

For now, it’s 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 fell dramatically and shockingly? “It’s an interesting idea,” she says. “Is there more story to tell? I think this is evolving as we speak. How did she feel when the woman she helped celebrate in Besson’s film was accused of turning a blind eye to the genocide? “I was very disappointed and taken aback,” she says. There is a faint sound of eggshells cracking underfoot.

Left her co-star an emotional wreck… like Eleanor Young in Crazy Rich Asians.
Left her co-star an emotional wreck… like Eleanor Young in Crazy Rich Asians. Photograph: Allstar / Warner Bros

One character she would have no qualms about repeating is Eleanor Young, the quietly intimidating matriarch of the 2018 hit comedy Crazy Rich Asians about a Chinese-American woman (Constance Wu) facing the disapproval of her wealthy family. new boyfriend in singapore. “It has really been a game-changer for the Asian community,” she says. “Shang-Chi is something different: it doesn’t change the game but it approves and cements what belongs to our community. What was amazing about Crazy Rich Asians was being able to represent this culture in Asia itself, rather than Britain or America.

In the most memorable scene, Young firmly puts his son’s girlfriend in her place. Meeting her at the top of the stairs at an incredibly opulent family home evening, she gauges her, touches her cheek, and delivers a devastating five-word review. Yeoh repeats it with me – “You will never be enough” – then laughs wickedly. “I’ve seen men and women come up to me and say, ‘I’m so scared of you.’ I like this!”

Did she understand Young’s protective character? “Oh yeah. Originally it 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 was not 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 that women make. Sometimes, it’s not appreciated. It’s very relevant to me, so I knew she wasn’t that cold, cruel person.

Even so, that scene on the stairs left Wu an emotional wreck and director Jon Chu was terrified. “Jon said to me, ‘Oh my God, your eyes have turned black!’ I was like, ‘Really?’ That sounds bad. And I’m not mean. She is weighing her options. “I mean, I could have pushed her up the stairs, right?” Save that one for later.


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