When I think of strong female characters, my mind tends to wander to the cinema of Hong Kong. Perhaps I’m taking the concept of “strength” too literally, but I often consider the many popular Hong Kong actresses whose cinematic physical prowess is unquestioned: Brigitte Lin, Sharla Cheung Man, and Moon Lee. One of the most recognizable actresses, particularly to Western audiences, to come from Hong Kong movies is Michelle Yeoh.
After winning the Miss Malaysia beauty pageant in 1983, Yeoh appeared in a television commercial with Hong Kong’s top star, Jackie Chan, and made her screen debut in The Owl vs. Bumbo (1984). She starred in her first leading role in 1985, as a police inspector in Corey Yuen’s Yes, Madam!, opposite Cynthina Rothrock (an American-born martial artist/actress who first achieved fame in Hong Kong before U.S. audiences took notice). Yeoh was an instant star, appearing the subsequent year in Royal Warriors (her first two films were also known, respectively (and interestingly), as In the Line of Duty 2 and In the Line of Duty, both in a series which continued without Yeoh). In 1987, Yeoh starred in Magnificent Warriors and in a non-action role in Easy Money. By the following year, Yeoh married producer Dickson Poon, co-founder of D & B Films (which had produced all of her movies), and officially retired from the film industry.
While a woman can demonstrate her strength in many other ways than simple physicality, an actress in the Hong Kong cinema has fewer options. Films in Hong Kong are made as quickly and cheaply as possible, almost like an assembly line. Consequently, the filmmakers allow most movies to be defined by a broad genre, and action has long been one of the most successful film genres in that region. For an actress to stand out among so many men, she generally has to punch and kick her way through her male co-stars.
Yeoh’s early films display her talent in both drama and action. But it is interesting to view her against the men whom she’s essentially replacing. In Yes, Madam!, both she and fellow star Rothrock have boyish haircuts and dress in attire that, for the most part, does not differ much from the male villains or officers. Royal Warriors takes a similar approach. Although early in the movie Yeoh is engaged in combat with a pink bow in her hair and wearing a skirt and tights, she dresses down as the narrative progresses. By the end, in an action scene fueled by vengeance (an intense and memorable sequence in which Yeoh fights a man wielding a chainsaw), any femininity suggested by womanly apparel is completely lacking. By Magnificent Warriors, although Yeoh’s hair is longer, and she is as charming as ever, she is, for all intents and purposes, playing a role that could easily have been written for a male. None of this is meant to insinuate that Yeoh resembles a man in these films (many supporting characters acknowledge her beauty), but it seems that, in order to contend with the males, she must disregard her own gender.
Three years after her marriage to Poon, Yeoh divorced the producer and came out of retirement to co-star with Jackie Chan in 1992’s Police Story III: Supercop (Chan’s first film of the series, Police Story, was released the same year as Yeoh’s breakout role in Yes, Madam!). In Police Story III, Chan reprises his character, Chen Chia-chu, who is sent on a mission to bring down a drug lord, Chaibat (Kenneth Tsang). With the direction and aid of Interpol director Yang (Yeoh), Chen goes undercover and teams up with Panther (Yuen Wah), hoping the criminal will lead them to Chaibat.
Director Stanley Tong, who’d previously worked as a stuntman (and prides himself on testing stunts in his films before asking his actors to perform them), had worked with Yeoh during her time with D & B Films. He offers a much different and more rewarding character for the actress in Police Story III. Yang’s introduction in the film has her in full uniform. She stands upright and walks almost in a march. Such a mechanical demeanor seems to make Yeoh’s character genderless. However, she reappears later in the film, posing as Chen’s sister, dressed like a young girl and her previously unseen hair in braided pigtails. Chen is dumbfounded (though it’s mostly due to the fact that he’s confusing the details of his undercover assignment), but much of the audience in 1992 was sure to have likewise been in awe. With Yeoh’s first film in five years, Tong reminds the audience that the actress is not only a female action star but is also incredibly gorgeous.
From the beginning, Yang is clearly shown as a strong character. While discussing the mission with Chen, Yang easily recites the history of the man’s undercover profile, and, to prove a point, runs through Chen’s own biography faster than he can. As Chen prepares for the assignment, he seems uncomfortable having pictures taken for ID cards, and though he mocks having to memorize his character’s historical data, he predictably forgets most of it and needs help simply locating the village in which he was supposed to have been raised. With Yang displaying her intelligence and leadership abilities and even proving adept with a firearm during Chen and Panther’s “escape” from prison, one would guess that the only point of expertise that Chen has over Yang would be combat. This, however, is quickly refuted when Panther is recognized by cops at a restaurant, and he and Chen are arrested. From a small crowd, Yang flies into the air and, in a single move, knocks two officers to the ground. Rather than simply equal Chen’s skills, she unintentionally outdoes him by throwing chopsticks (two of them thrown as weapons, preventing a cop from retrieving his weapon), which Chen follows up by clumsily (and hysterically) tossing a handful of chopsticks.
While Yeoh’s first films presented the audience with a beautiful woman skilled at fighting, Tong initially shows her in Police Story III as a competent female, and only then does he reveal her physical allure. The pigtails eventually become long, jet black hair, a radiant contradiction -- in one highly explosive action scene -- to Yeoh behind a bulletproof vest. Later in the film, Yeoh wears a jumpsuit with her long legs bare (which plays well when Chen’s girlfriend, May (Maggie Cheung), not realizing that her boyfriend’s undercover, assumes that Chen and Yang are lovers). In the film’s final sequence, Yeoh is dressed as a Muslim woman, complete with a head covering (hijab) and ankle-length baggy pants. But when the action starts, the hijab falls off and unveils her long hair, and hidden slits in the pants expose her bare legs once again. (In Hong Kong cinema, long hair is typically a confirmation of a woman’s sexuality. In some films, a woman can merely hide her hair and be mistaken for a male, like Yeoh herself in 1994’s Wing Chun.) Though the constant cues of Yeoh’s comeliness may seem exploitative, they contrarily are reminders of the simple fact that she is a woman. She need not deny her femininity to compete with the men. She can be a beautiful woman and still kick her male co-stars in the face.
Yeoh not only showcases her strength through her character, Yang, but also manages to steal the spotlight from Hong Kong’s most bankable star. Her acting chops are undeniable, but Yeoh additionally matches two of Chan’s most discernible traits: comedy and stunts. This is not a statement meant to be derogatory to Chan, who is terrific in Police Story III. But Chan’s trademark comedy is complimented by Yeoh’s wry retorts. For instance, Chen playfully squeezing Yang’s cheeks when she’s introduced to Panther and his crew as his sister (an act which he wouldn’t dare do with Yang in uniform) is countered by Yang punching him in the chest. And while Chan performs impressive stunt work in the film, Yeoh also does her own stunts, including hanging onto a speeding van, falling off said van and landing on a trailing sports car, and, her pièce de résistance, riding a motorcycle onto a moving train (she first had to learn to ride a motorcycle).
Yeoh had no formal martial arts training. She did, however, study ballet at the Royal Academy of Dance in England before an injury forced her to shift her studies to drama. In addition to being trained in fight choreography, Yeoh also had to learn her lines phonetically. The actress, who was born in Ipok in Perak, Malaysia, spoke Malay and English, but not Cantonese, the Chinese dialect most often spoken in Hong Kong before 1997 (although it’s still frequently spoken even after the country’s reunification with China). Yeoh repeated the process during the filming of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which was filmed in the mainland China dialect of Mandarin.
Yeoh continued playing strong female characters in her films, like the Police Story III spin-off, 1993’s Project S (aka Once a Cop; Supercop 2), The Tai Chi Master (1993) with Jet Li, and Wing Chun. In Silver Hawk (2004), Yeoh is the whole package: a wealthy, resourceful and self-reliant woman who vanquishes bad guys as a comic book heroine, and all while stylishly adorned in various costumes.
Yeoh was virutally unknown in the U.S. but quickly rose to stardom upon re-release of Police Story III in American theaters in 1996 (titled simply Supercop), following the success of Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx (also directed by Tong) earlier in the year. In 1997, Yeoh made her U.S. debut as a Bond Girl opposite Pierce Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies (her Police Story III co-star, Tsang, had a small role in a later Bond film with Brosnan, 2002’s Die Another Day). Yeoh was nominated for several awards, including a BAFTA, for her performance in Ang Lee’s popular Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, also starring Chow Yun-Fat. More recently, Yeoh has received acclaim for her part in Reign of Assassins (2010), co-directed by John Woo.