Michelle Yeoh’s win at the Oscars this year is nothing short of historic. With a career-crowning performance as Chinese-American immigrant mother Evelyn Wang in the heartfelt, genre-bending Everything Everywhere All At Once, Yeoh takes home the award for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the 95th Academy Awards. Her win, which makes her the first Asian woman to clinch the award, has been a long time coming.
Everything Everywhere All At Once might have catapulted Yeoh to mainstream recognition only last year, but the Malaysian actress has long been known for her formidable performances and impressive martial arts prowess. Following her win at the Miss Malaysia World contest in 1983 at the age of 20, Yeoh starred in a commercial with Jackie Chan, which fortuitously kickstarted her screen career in action and martial arts films. The rest is history.
Credited as Michelle Khan early in her career—an alias chosen by production company D&B Films in the hopes that it might be more marketable to international and western audiences—Yeoh performed most of her own stunts despite having no formal training in martial arts. Retiring temporarily from acting in 1987, she made a glorious return to the screen in Supercop, the film that would go on to inspire Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. However, a fall from a bridge while filming The Stunt Woman caused her to fracture her vertebrae. She once again considered retiring—but decided she was not ready to give up.
Already a household name in Hong Kong, Yeoh’s arrival in Hollywood a year later was ushered in by the James Bond series’ eighteenth film, Tomorrow Never Dies. Over the years, she has cemented herself as a legend in her own right. From her performance in the iconic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which earned Yeoh her first BAFTA nomination to more recent appearances in blockbuster franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Star Trek and The Witcher, Yeoh has taken on each of her roles with grace, fortitude and sheer hard work.
In honour of her momentous win, we look back at eight defining moments in her illustrious career—tracing the path that led up to her performance as Everything Everywhere All At Once‘s Evelyn Wang.
1 / 8
Yes, Madam (1985)
In one of the many multiverses that Evelyn Wang blizzards through in Everything Everywhere All At Once, she finds herself with the wits of a kung fu master—an eloquent homage to Yeoh’s first starring role in Yes, Madam! (1985). The Hong Kong cult action film held just as much impact in its own right for its primitive recognition of Yeoh (or Khan)’s capabilities to pull off her own combat sequences, essentially being her own stunt woman for most of the show. Here, she buddies up with Cynthia Rothrock, the other half of the feisty inspector duo tracking down the leads to a murder-theft case.
2 / 8
If Yes, Madam! had Yeoh kicking criminals and shooting bullets, then Police Story 3: Supercop (1992) made sure to have her flying off the roofs of moving vehicles and driving motorcycles up onto trains. Perhaps it makes a little more sense when you’re cognisant of who her co-star was; none other than the iconic Jackie Chan. The pair play Jessica and Kevin, an undercover duo trying to crack a drug ring from within. Whilst it’s clear now that the film was a true ode to the actors’s ferocious stunt abilities, Yeoh has also quoted Supercop as a film in which she could have lost her life to the sheer danger of some of the stunts she had tried pulling on her own.
3 / 8
Wing Chun (1994)
A cult classic all on its own, Wing Chun (1994) saw Yeoh team up with legendary martial arts actor Donnie Yen. She plays the titular character Wing Chun—which many have speculated is the inspiration behind the name of the now-famous kung fu style—the village tofu store owner who attempts to protect her loved ones from a crew of bandits. While its plot may play out like a predictable book, it is one other assured addition to Yeoh’s line-up of stunt-led action flicks that prove the actress’s fighting prowess.
4 / 8
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Despite the constant barriers to entry that Yeoh might have faced in the industry, it seems she’s never given anyone an opportunity to cast her in a reductive female role. And Mai Lin (Yeoh) in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) might just be the ultimate proof of that. Yeoh’s character is a self-sufficient and independent secret agent sent by the Chinese—and one of the only ‘Bond girls’ that have actually been portrayed as his equal. Alongside Pierce Brosnan as Bond, Yeoh is his temporary partner-in-crime, joining him only because they share the same enemy. A modern attempt at the 007 narrative, the film is a definitive leap for Yeoh—who played a part not only in paving the way for Asian action films, but also in creating a space for powerful women in one of Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster franchises.
5 / 8
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Whilst Tomorrow Never Dies still carried with it the archaic idea of the necessary male lead, you can rest assured knowing that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was Michelle Yeoh’s big break into a leading role that wasn’t defined by only her action scenes. Despite the spectacular undercurrent of the wuxia film—still ridden with its own fair share of masterful combat shots and culturally-rich cinematography—it was Yeoh’s emotional range that made her starring role twice as moving. As she plays Shu Lien, a noble warrior with the formidable task of delivering the mystical ‘Green Sword’, there is beauty in the romantic tangent of her relationship with Li Mu Bai, that teases the tension in every warrior between duty and desire.
6 / 8
Star Trek: Discovery (2017-2020)
In the last decade or so, Yeoh’s foray into the blockbuster franchise space has continuously been cemented, and her addition to the cast of Star Trek: Discovery was just the first in an ever-increasing line of buzzy fan-favourites. Playing Captain Georgiou in the episodic narrative, Yeoh is just like her character: born in Malaysia and a devoted leader. And after rising through the ranks as one of Starfleet’s most respected officers, a pivotal moment in the series becomes the basis on which Star Trek’s creators have decided on a promised spin-off series—Section 31—adding on to Yeoh’s diverse roles across the various multiverses, from the MCU to The Witcher.
7 / 8
Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
The first major studio film with a predominantly Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993, Crazy Rich Asians (2018) was a cultural movement that opened many doors for Asian actors and stories in Hollywood. A romantic comedy-drama based on Kevin Kwan’s novel of the same name, the film follows Chinese-American professor Rachel Chu as she travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s family—unprepared for the fact that they are the richest in the country. Playing Eleanor Sung-Young, the stately but ruthless mother of male lead Nick Young, Yeoh received widespread critical acclaim for her performance in the film.
8 / 8
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
While Yeoh previously made a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), her official entrance into the MCU arrives in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021). Starring as Ying Nan, guardian of the mystical dimension Ta Lo, she teaches titular hero Shang-Chi that strength does not always come from brute force. As her graceful movements reveal the quiet elegance of martial arts, Yeoh’s years of experience in combat films shine through.