Jackie Chan may be a big action star who made his mark in both Asian cinema and Hollywood, but he once thought women have no place in action films.
And the person who put him in his place and changed his mind? Veteran Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh.
Yes, according to Michelle, Jackie used to believe that women belonged in the kitchen rather than in action movies. That is, until the ‘kung fu goddess’ (a term The Guardian ascribed to Michelle in their interview) “kicked his butt”.
Talk about being a bad-ass and fighting the patriarchy.
It wasn’t just Jackie’s attitude that Michelle had to contend with back in the early 1980s when she was training for her stunts. She also faced disparaging attitudes from the stunt men in the Hong Kong gym where her training took place.
“They literally folded their arms, stood back and watched me. ‘This little thing wants to do all this?’ But I followed them move for move. I was in that gym 8.30am until sundown every day,” the 59-year-old told the British daily.
When she started her acting career in action and martial arts films, Michelle did most of her own stunts and she “didn’t have help from CGI” back then.
“You just went out and did what you had to do,” she said.
Her work on the 1986 film Yes, Madam was singled out as one scene saw her flying into the air with numerous enemies and crashing through glass.
In another stunt, she is hanging upside down while anchoring her legs on the railing of a balcony, and in one swift backflip, breaks the glass panels (with the back of her head) and tosses her enemies off.
“One take!” she told The Guardian, then added softly: “Thank God it was only one.”
Another stunt that was pointed out? A scene where she performs a motorcycle jump onto a moving train in the 1992 film Supercop. Incidentally, she was in that film with Jackie.
That stunt made her feel invincible, she admitted.
But if she had her way, and if life was kinder to her in the past, we might not have been that fortunate to witness her greatness.
Michelle initially wanted to be a ballet dancer and went to study at the Royal Academy of Dance in London. However, she suffered a back injury at 16 and her hopes for a ballet career were extinguished.
She was asked by doctors to consider other avenues as “there were other ways to express physicality beyond ballet”.
Then her turn on Yes, Madam gave her the solution she was looking for — being an action hero and doing stunts.
She told The Guardian: “I just needed to learn to transfer the energy, because a lot of times in dance it’s very inward and contained. Action is more about how you deliver that energy, pushing it forward.”
More than 30 years later, Michelle is still performing her own stunts and she sees some action in Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
In the action superhero flick, she plays a (you guessed it!) ‘kung fu goddess’ named Ying Nan, the strong protector of a hidden mystical village and aunt to Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang).
And before that, she was ‘kicking butt’ (in a different way) in 2018’s romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians as Eleanor, the stern and intimidating matriarch of the Young family who doesn’t hesitate to put her son and the family name first.
Even if it means telling her son’s girlfriend Rachel (played by Constance Wu) that she will never be enough in an iconic scene that had viewers feeling scared of Michelle.
She shared: “I’ve had men and women come up to me and tell me, ‘I’m so scared of you.’ I love that!”
But Eleanor isn’t mean for the sake of being mean or simply being an ‘Asian tiger mum’, Michelle explained.
“It’s not that superficial. She wasn’t accepted by her own mother-in-law, and she had to fight to keep her family together. I see it all around me: the sacrifices women make. Sometimes it’s not appreciated. That’s very relatable to me, so I knew she was not this cold, cruel person,” she said.
This article was first published in AsiaOne.