Actress Michelle Yeoh is the top contender in this year’s Oscars race for Best Actress, courtesy her stunning work in ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’, which will make her the first Asian actress to walk home with this honour. The actress, who plays laundromat owner Evelyn Quan Wang in the film, has been a hot favourite of cinema lovers for the past few years, but her journey on the big screen has been far from everything, everywhere all at once. The actress has worked tirelessly for close to 40 years now.
Yeoh’s journey is a classical model graduating to becoming an actor story, except for one thing, she was not just a pretty face as a model, but also an actress with expertise in martial arts.
She won the Miss Malaysia World contest at the age of 21 in 1983 and went on to represent Malaysia at the Miss World 1983 pageant in London where she finished 18th among 72 contestants.
After this, the actress started working in television commercials after getting her break in a television ad alongside the legend, Jackie Chan. Yeoh, who has stated that she had limited proficiency in Cantonese, was informed during her initial Cantonese phone conversation with the production company that she will be working alongside ‘Sing Lung’.
It was only after she entered the studio that she realised that she will share the frame with Jackie Chan in the commercial, and that ‘Sing Lung’ was the Cantonese name of Jackie Chan.
A year after that in 1984, Yeoh landed her first job in films, that too in a film which was made far away from her home, the Hong Kong action comedy ‘The Owl vs Bombo’ directed by Sammo Hung, who is known for reinventing the genre of martial arts films and is also credited for starting the vampire-like Jiangshi genre, which is the far-eastern counterpart of the vampires and zombies of the West.
Yeoh, who was credited in the film as Michelle Khan as it was more marketable to the international audience, did her own stunts in ‘The Owl vs Bombo’ and the films that followed.
The actress steadily gained recognition in Hong Kong films. She rose through the ranks and also properly learnt Cantonese as an occupational demand of working in Hong Kong cinema.
By the early 1990s, Yeoh was a star of Hong Kong cinema. Her works have even inspired the cinema great Quentin Tarantino, who is a self-admitted Michelle Yeoh ‘superfan’.
Then came 1996 when she bagged a role in ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’, the 18th film in the ‘James Bond’ series. The film was the first one in the series to be made after the death of Albert R. Broccoli, who was involved with the series’ production since its inception.
Broccoli was the producer who not just laid the seeds for one of the most iconic film series in the history cinema, but also transformed the franchise from its low-budget origins to large-budget, high-grossing extravaganzas.
Naturally, the stakes were high but the film paid off, it grossed over $333 million worldwide, becoming the fourth-highest-grossing film of 1997 and even earned a Golden Globe nomination.
But the film remains a cultural turning point in Western cinema as it introduced Yeoh to a larger set of audience, who were just dumbfounded with the action that Yeoh put up on screen. Her co-star, Pierce Brosnan, even referred to her as a ‘female James Bond’ in reference to her combat abilities.
Three years after that came the Wu Xia film ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ directed by Ang Lee, in which she essayed the role of a female warrior and the head of a private security company.
The film was a multinational venture and Yeoh, along with her fellow cast members, moonwalked through the wide opened gates of the American film market.
‘Crouching Tiger…’ was the first foreign-language film to break the $100 million mark in the United States at a strong $128 million.
In 2002, Yeoh produced her first film, ‘The Touch’, through her own production company Mythical Films.
Elsewhere, somewhere around 2003, Quentin Tarantino, who worked in a video parlour during his teens and had access to the best of films from across the world, started working on an American martial arts film which is now etched in the hearts of cinema lovers as ‘Kill Bill’.
However, as fate would have it, despite being the best martial arts actress, Yeoh missed out on the part, her biggest strength – a destructive infallible female actress became the unsurmountable roadblock as Tarantino wanted to cast an actress, who would take the viewers by surprise, someone who gives an impression of a reticent damsel in distress, someone like Uma Thurman, she had been in distress in the famous ‘adrenaline shot directly to the heart’ scene in the 1994 Tarantino classic ‘Pulp Fiction’ and that sealed the deal for her.
In 2007, she starred in the Danny Boyle directed science fiction psychological thriller film, ‘Sunshine’. The same Danny Boyle would go on to win the Oscar for Best Director for ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.
‘Sunshine’ showcased a futuristic premise of the year 2057 and told the story of a group of astronauts who are on a dangerous mission to reignite the dying Sun. Yeoh played the role of biologist, who is entrusted with taking care of the ship’s ‘oxygen garden’.
Four years after her appearance in ‘Sunshine’, Yeoh starred in two big films in 2011 – the British biographical film ‘The Lady’, in which she essayed the role of the Burmese politician, diplomat, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – besides lending her voice to the character of Soothsayer in ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’.
The actress then went on to star in many successful movies such as ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny’, which was the sequel to ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and the superhero film ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’.
As the race for 95th Academy Awards draws to a close, Yeoh already boasts of a Golden Globe Award, an HCA award and an SGA award for her terrific work in ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’.
–By Akshay Acharya