The Power of Body Language: Michelle Yeoh, Action Cinema’s First Lady

Watching Michelle Yeoh fight on screen is like watching Fred Astaire dance: simply beautiful.

The surprising box office success of Lucy, staring Scarlett Johansson, shows that audiences still want to see women kick some serious butt on screen. Reporter Eliana Dockterman applauds this in her essay “Scarlett Johansson, Lucy, and the Future of the Female Action Star“, and argues that Johansson is the only contemporary actresses that can “carry an action film with no built-in fan base.” (Time, 25 July 2014)

While I understand Dockterman’s enthusiasm, her emphasis on box office as a metric of success above all else is problematic. For one, plenty of the best action films took years to garner a following, and to dismiss them because they didn’t break box office records undermines the importance of home video. Moreover, Lucy isn’t a great action film, and Johansson is a far cry from the leading ladies that came before, regardless of the impressive amount of money the film made on opening weekend.

To appreciate action cinema is to admire the physicality of the performer. Great action films continue to be made today, most notably The Raid films and The Bourne Trilogy, but sadly many of them rely on computer generated imagery, which ultimately overpowers the presence of the movie stars. Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise exemplifies this, and by the end of the films, we don’t remember anything about the actors, but we do recall how cool the explosions looked. The same, I believe, could be said about Lucy.

When an action film really works, the star becomes the special effect, and everything else feels secondary. If we’re going to discuss female action stars, then, we must recall a time before CGI dominated the genre, when performers were the most important assets.

There’s no doubt that Michelle Yeoh is the most significant female action star in film history. She began her career acting in martial arts films, and it wasn’t long before she was at the center of Hong Kong’s so-called boom years in the early ’90s.

Yeoh wasn’t as popular or prolific as her male counterpart, Jackie Chan, but they are both known for combining action and slapstick comedy in ways that are reminiscent of silent film legend Buster Keaton. Most impressively, Yeoh did her own stunts, which brought a level of authenticity and fearlessness to her work that’s decidedly missing in a film like Lucy.

The first major film that brought Yeoh international acclaim is Police Story 3 (1992), in which she stars opposite Chan as a policewoman who tries to take down a drug czar. The plot is inconsequential. What matters are the elaborate action sequences and the chemistry between Yeoh and Chan. Chan has had wonderful screen partners throughout his career, most notably Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films, but Yeoh is arguably the only one who can outfight him.

There are a number of spectacular scenes in Police Story 3, but the one that stands out is the final “train scene”, in which Yeoh jumps a motorcycle onto a moving train. Filmmaker and cinephile Quentin Tarantino has famously called this one of the greatest stunts in cinema history, and it’s awfully difficult to disagree with him. The sheer audacity in the attempt is admirable, and the fact that Yeoh pulled it off without severely injuring herself is even more amazing.

In a 2008 interview with The Guardian, Yeoh acknowledged the importance of an action star’s physicality, as she said, “Body language is more fascinating to me than actual language. Before you get into the mind, you have to inhabit the physicality. Body language is a great way of speaking.” (“All-action Heroine“, 31 December 2008) Like the best action stars, Yeoh comprehends the significance of physical movement, and watching her fight on screen is like watching Fred Astaire dance: simply beautiful.

Consider her performance in Wing Chun (1994), a lesser-known martial arts comedy. This time, she’s the main action star, and she commands the screen with great force and intensity. The climactic scene of the film, in which she goes toe-to-toe with Tsui Siu-Keung, is exhilarating, and it illustrates Yeoh’s strength, agility, and knack for physical comedy.

Scenes like this were easy to take for granted in the ’90s, when Hong Kong action cinema reached its peak and American audiences were beginning to discover the best that the genre had to offer. However, they’re incredibly difficult to film, and they put most contemporary action sequences by Hollywood to shame. It’s no surprise that the success of Yeoh’s martial arts films landed her in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) as one of the more entertaining Bond girls in the franchise.

Tomorrow Never Dies isn’t a great Bond film, but Yeoh’s presence makes it worthwhile. In her first English speaking role, Yeoh charmed many American moviegoers for the first time with her wit, sex appeal, and kick-ass moves. She was at once sweet and confrontational, and single-handedly stole the movie from Pierce Brosnan. When Brosnan lovingly referred to Yeoh as a “female James Bond”, I couldn’t help but wonder how much better the film would’ve been if she had been given the starring role.

To date, Yeoh’s most celebrated performance is in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), a beautiful martial arts film that many consider to be one of the best. Toward the end of the film, Yeoh faces off against younger Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang in one of the most exciting fight scenes ever put on film.

What’s striking about this scene is watching one of cinema’s most influential action stars, Yeoh, fight against a newcomer at the time, Zhang. There’s a certain amount of self-reflexivity here, as if the stars are winking at the audience, aware that moviegoers are going to compare each of the women and see which one comes out on top.

The scene ends with Yeoh as the clear winner, which solidifies her status as action cinema’s first lady. Zhang is a worthy competitor, but she wouldn’t be there without her predecessor, and the filmmakers want audiences to be aware of this. As a result, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon can be read as a love letter to Yeoh and all that she has given to cinema.

In many ways, Hong Kong action cinema caught on with international audiences (especially those in the United States) because of the proliferation of home video entertainment and the rise of CGI. On the one hand, viewers from around the world discovered these movies on VHS, DVD, and Netflix streaming, long after they were released theatrically in Hong Kong. On the other hand, since Hollywood action cinema has become CGI heavy, fans of the genre have become nostalgic for past action films that emphasize performance, physicality, and daring stunt work, and continue to marvel at the skill of action heroes like Yeoh.

In a widely circulated essay, film scholar Tom Gunning has defined the “cinema of attraction” as “a cinema that displays it visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator,” and although he refers to early cinema and the contributions of the Lumière brothers and George Méliès, other scholars have interpreted the term more broadly and applied it to any other type of cinema that presents something unique to the viewer, including but not limited to special effects driven films. In this regard, the silent classic A Trip to the Moon (1902) is cinema of attraction, and so is the 3D epic, Gravity (2013).

So, too, are the many exhilarating action films that feature Yeoh. However, the attraction in this case is not some technologically advanced visual effect like 3D or CGI, but the sheer star power of Yeoh, who astonishes viewers with her physicality. Whether she’s showing off with a dangerous stunt, or with an elaborately choreographed martial arts fight scene, there’s a sense that she’s offering something unique and unprecedented that no one else can match.

This is not to say, of course, that Yeoh is the only female action star worth remembering. Pam Grier was a force to be reckoned with in the Blaxploitation movies of the ’70s, Linda Hamilton and Sigourney Weaver paved the way in the Terminator and Alien films, and Cynthia Rothrock appeared in a plethora of “B” action movies in the ’80s.

However, Yeoh raised the bar by combining stunt work, physical comedy, and martial arts, and she persevered in an industry that lacked Hollywood’s budgetary security measures, but like Hollywood, was dominated by men. She inspired a generation of young actresses to follow in her footsteps, and continues to entertain moviegoers around the world.

The success of Johansson’s Lucy is a wonderful thing, and I hope it encourages Hollywood to finance more action films with women at the center. At the same time, I can’t see how anyone can compare with Yeoh, whose very presence is the essence of cinema.

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