Ahead of Oscars weekend and looking back on our Letterboxd collaboration on the long-awaited MICHELLE YEOH t-shirt, Cressa Maeve Beer writes a love letter to the actress, martial arts icon and all-round inspiration.
This is to you, Michelle Yeoh; our sainted mother of balletic kicks, our lady of swords and whips, our blessed gift and sacred jewel. This is your ballad, from the little girl who discovered, by watching you, that she could be strong - and that strength need not be defined by masculinity.
It was a matinee, opening weekend of Tomorrow Never Dies: I was 10, growing into my era of fantasy and swords and explosions, which I never left. I still remember seeing you on screen, effortlessly throwing punches and punts, needing no rescuing. It’s the scene when you use some fancy spy device to walk down a wall, and you wave to Pierce Brosnan with a cute little smile that says, “I’m not your prize, I’m your competition.” My prepubescent brain clicked something into place. It’s my first conscious experience of, “Do I want to be her, or be with her, or be adopted by her?” Queer girls get it. Up until that point, characters in movies who could hold their own had to put themselves on the same level as their macho counterparts, which typically meant joining in the toxicity; it was the ‘90s, in order to be ‘badass,’ one had to be hard-boiled, gun-toting, (typically) woman-hating, aggro rage douche. To be strong was to be masculine, manly, macho; to be a female character was to be a damsel, to be dainty, to be weak and in mere service of the men around her.
You stood out so sharply to me, because you wore your femininity on the same sleeve as the fist that was smashing through someone’s jaw, a warm smile and gorgeous wink behind every crushing blow. Madame Yeoh, you will never know how much of a world changer that was for me, to begin to recognize that femininity and power were not opposites.
It was only a few years later when my fangirling turned to idolisation: when my parents, eager to school me in world cinema, called me in sick from middle school so that I could see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a movie that in a lot of ways epitomises what makes you special. Even during every wired, wuxia action sequence, there is a soulfulness to your presence; you are as grandiose in a tiny shift of your eyes as you are in a flying leap with a sword. You could make going to the toilet look full of grace. Emma Stefansky puts it best on Letterboxd: “MICHELLE YEOH ACTS IN MICROEXPRESSIONS AND IT’S MESMERIZING.” Truly! There is no one else I could name that can do the same while also flipping through the air with a variety of bladed weapons.
What a treat it then was, Queen Yeoh, to work backwards from there, to hear murmurs of Hong Kong cinema (kids, you’ll never know the pain of hearing about a movie on an internet forum that took 12 minutes to load and then begging your parents to drive you the hour to Suncoast Video so that you could beg some greasy haired weeb for a $30 poorly dubbed VHS. Thanks, Ben, wherever you are!) I wish I could see Yes, Madam! for the first time again; the amount I squealed when you show up with that mullet and blazer, and kick the ever living shit out of 100 dudes alongside Cynthia Rock, with more scenery smashing than the lobby sequence of The Matrix. Yes, Madam? More like Yes, Mommy! Oh, and this was your debut in a lead role? AND you very casually did all your own stunts from here on out? Suddenly, I no longer had any taste for the boring chauvinists of American action movies, hiding behind their guns and special effects; sit down, boys, here is a badass. It's like tasting a ghost pepper sauce and being expected to still find Frank's Red Hot spicy.
Two of my favourite movies of yours: Warrior Princess, are of warriors Magnificent and Royal. Royal Warriors is so dizzying in its serotonin-pumping that I had to pause the movie to take a shower halfway through (gun fights, and sword fights, and car chases, and chainsaws, oh my!) and from the first frames, you never drop that delightful swagger. I think what takes the cake is when you show up with a revenge vehicle and matching outfit. Show me another superhero or action star who has the glam to pull that off; you don’t just wreck everyone’s shit, you make sure to look that good doing it. Do I now have a wardrobe look prepared just in case of vengeful demolition after watching you in this movie? I can neither confirm nor deny.
And then you show up in Magnificent Warriors sporting an ‘Indiana Jones goes Futch’, taking down a whole village of armed men with only a whip and a smile – I’m not sure which you crack harder – before aerial dogfights (two-fingered waves for the girls and the gays), flying motorcycle chases, and giant machine-gun mowdowns. And you do it all with unmatched effortlessness. You are having the time of your life.
Watching you beam warm enthusiasm through every intense fight and chaotic choreography, I realise that’s what it is about you that makes you an unparalleled, incomparable titan. My favourite moment of yours, one that always sticks out as an expression of your core, comes not from an award winner but from an (unfairly) oft-looked over 2000s superhero flick: Silver Hawk. When you leap with your motorcycle towards the gang of villains, ready to kick all heaping loads of ass, you “wahoo!” as playfully and joyfully as a kid on the playground. It’s small, but feels so sincere; your love for what you do glows in every role.
Which brings me to Wing Chun, and if I were to ever be shamed by how much I call you ‘Mother,’ ‘Mommy,’ or even ‘Mommi,’ I need simply point to the scene when you whip out two swords and tell the legion of villains to call you ‘Mommy.’ I’m doing my part for our Baroness of Brutality and Beauty. Nevermind you smashing bean curds and setting a man’s balls on fire (you in a Yuen Woo-ping movie makes for Bugs Bunny in a wuxia), we are treated to the exchange of “Why is she dressed like a man? / You idiot - she looks fabulous in a man's suit.” The world agrees with you, sir. As deftly put by Randi Reckless, “Whipping asses without even having to stand up or break a sweat - I expect nothing less from Yeoh.”
My personal crème de la crème of your filmography is The Heroic Trio where you are deliciously paired with Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung to give us the ultimate pre-Marvel superhero team up to end them all. This is Birds of Prey dialled up to 11 with neon lighting. Why bother making movies after this? What more could there be to do with the cinematic medium? How do you improve upon perfection? Master Michelle, when you aren’t glowering in constant hero wind in your all red wardrobe (the red hat, the red coat, the red jumpsuit, the red cape), you’re giving us the Bad Girl Who Still Has A Heart goodies (I don’t mind the thing with the babies, they knew what they signed up for when they showed up for Tsui Hark); you’re giving us range that wasn’t even necessary, you just went for it anyways Ridiculous movie? Who cares, you’re Meryl Streep-ing this. No, I take that back: you’re Michelle Yeoh-ing this.
And now, MotherMommyMommi Michelle, we come to the whole raison d'etre for this essay, the reason for the (Oscar) season, the 2(ish) hour reverie that has launched you at last to the forefront of everyone’s attention: the exquisite Everything Everywhere All At Once. At age 10, I was seeing my first celebrity hero (and crush), and here 25 years later (on my actual 35th birthday! Cosmic!) I got to see her in the vehicle she has deserved for so long. You have been serving all manner of treats since your first scene-stealing movie moments in The Owl vs. Bombo, to your death-defying martial arts on par with your male co-stars in Police Story to your quiet and powerful depths in your non fighting roles like The Lady… but here was something that recognized you for every single thing that made you you, and let you soar with it. Your own stunts and choreography, your own deeply resonant emotional journey, your maternal warmth, your humour, your winks, your strength, your heart – this was purely, unequivocally, artistically, beautifully you. As you said yourself, your “40 years of experience was like a long rehearsal for this movie.” Tearfully, you felt that "finally, somebody understood that I can do all these things.” This frothing fangirl is teary-eyed herself, watching as the world at long last gets to give you this same understanding and reverence.
Dear Michelle, may you finally receive the pedestal you have for all these years so rightly earned. On your altar, I lay my offerings (a can of La Croix and a bag of flaming hot cheetos, hopefully you’re into that). I have spent two and a half decades admiring you, shaping my sense of womanhood from seeing you on screens big and small, probably having my lesbian awakening from you. Regardless of the outcome of the awards, there is and has never been any denying the fact that there never has been and never will be anyone like you, that you stand in the pantheon of great artists. You deliver a tear-inducing monologue alongside a perfect roundhouse kick, and then close out with a smirk.
Shop our MICHELLE YEOH t-shirt in partnership with Letterboxd here.