Best known in the West for her role as Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) before her international breakout role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Michelle Yeoh is not your ordinary Bond girl. Her elegant good looks coupled with a killer high kick have made Yeoh one of the most popular martial arts stars in Asia and one of Hong Kong's most famous icons abroad.
Born on August 6, 1962, in the mining town of Ipoh, in Western Malaysia, Yeoh's ethnically Chinese parents taught her Malay and English well before she learned Cantonese. She began ballet dancing at the age of four, and, inspired by Fame (1980), she enrolled in England's Royal Academy of Dance, where she eventually earned a B.A. Though a back injury ended her career as a ballerina, she returned to her home country to be crowned Miss Malaysia of 1983. From there, she appeared in a television commercial with Jackie Chan which caught the attention of a fledgling film production company called D&B Films.
Taking the stage name Michelle Khan, she acted in bit parts in a number of forgettable films until her breakout role in the girls-with-guns action-comedy Yes, Madam! (1985) alongside noted kung-fu femme fatal Cynthia Rothrock. Though she did not know any martial arts before signing on to the film, Yeoh reportedly spent nine hours a day in the gym, working out and learning to take a punch. She had come a long way from the Royal Academy of Dance. Within the first five minutes of Madam, Yeoh emasculates a flasher and wastes a quartet of thieves. Yeoh immediately became one of Hong Kong's biggest female action stars and was soon appearing in films at a dizzying rate. Always performing her own stunts, she teamed up again with Rothrock in the kung-fu fest Royal Warriors (1986), and she starred in a violent Thomas Crown Afffair remake, Easy Money (1987). While making the Indiana Jones-style action epic Magnificent Warriors (1987), she got engaged to department store tycoon and studio head Dickson Poon (the D in D&B Films). Taking the lead of earlier martial arts divas such as Angela Mao, Yeoh retired from the movie biz in 1988 and retreated to a life of quiet domesticity. It didn't last long. The marriage was not a happy one (the Hong Kong press reported -- falsely it turns out -- that Poon suffered two broken ribs after a well-placed kick) and it ended in divorce in 1992.
Yeoh's career came roaring back after her show-stopping performance in Police Story 3: Super Cop (1992), where she matched the notoriously fearless Jackie Chan stunt for jaw-dropping stunt. At the beginning of the shoot, Chan was skeptical as to whether women could fight, preferring them to look pretty and to sit on the sidelines. By the end of the film, Chan was legitimately concerned that he might be upstaged. Yeoh's hair-raising high-speed motorcycle jump onto a moving train (she learned how to drive the motorbike the day before the stunt) was bested only by Chan's death-defying leap from a minaret to an airborne rope ladder hanging from a helicopter hundreds of feet above Kuala Lumpur. The film was a massive success, making Yeoh the highest paid actress in Asia. Now being billed as Michelle Yeoh, she starred in a string of popular action flicks, including Heroic Trio (1992) opposite Maggie Cheung and Anita Mui, Tai Chi Master (1993) along with kung-fu phenom Jet Li, and Wing Chun (1994), which is without a doubt the rockin'-est sockin'-est flick ever about tofu. Her career of high-flying stunts resulted in many a dislocated shoulder and broken rib, but in 1995, while shooting Ann Hui's Ah Kam, Yeoh managed to seriously injure herself. She misjudged a jump off an 18-foot wall (an easy stunt according to her) and landed on her head, cracking a vertebra. Yeoh was put in traction, and it was feared that she would never walk again. Yet within a month, she was back on the set as if nothing happened.
The American release of Supercop caught the eyes of Western producers, and soon she was cast opposite Pierce Brosnan in the James Bond-epic Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). Once again, Yeoh's natural charisma, along with her effortless ability to dispatch bands of baddies, threatened to outclass the male lead. That same year, Yeoh was named one of People magazine's 50 sexiest people of the year. Back in Hong Kong, Yeoh received accolades not for her kung-fu abilities but for her acting skills in her role as Soong Ai-ling in the widely praised historical melodrama The Soong Sisters (1997).
In 2000 Yeoh fused the popular historical aspects of her previous work with an unmistakably modern aesthetic, again displaying her unyielding skills and speed in the wildly popular Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Teaming with international superstar Chow Yun Fat in an epic and gravity-defying quest to recover a stolen Excaliber-like sword named the Green Destiny, Yeoh cemented her status as an incredibly graceful fighter with the unusual ability to display a remarkable dramatic range as well.
~ Jonathan Crow, Rovi