Magnificent Warriors (David Chung, 1987) — December 20, 2013
A self-consciously Hollywood-esque period adventure with Michelle Yeoh as an Indiana Jones-inspired hero who helps a small town (set ostensibly somewhere like Bhutan) resist the Japanese with the help of Richard Ng and Derek Yee. Relentlessly-paced, with a series of show-stopping action scenes (including a mid-film highlight where Yeoh takes on seemingly the whole Japanese Army single-handed), a light touch with the comic elements (a well-modulated performance from Richard Ng, which is something I didn’t think I’d ever see, much as I love the guy) and maybe the prettiest cinematography I’ve seen from an 80s Hong Kong action film (director David Chung was a star DP of the Hong Kong New Wave, and that experience is much more in evidence here than his previous collaboration with Yeoh, Royal Warriors). The only real problem is the score, which features a nice martial trumpet fanfare that gets repeated again and again and again. I can still hear it.
Like Royal Warriors, Magnificent Warriors was shoehorned into the In the Line of Duty series. Despite taking place in an entirely separate time period, it was dubbed Yes, Madam III for its international release.
Added March 20, 2022:
Less a Michelle Yeoh knock off of Indiana Jones than a Michelle Yeoh knock off of The High Road to China.
Like Yes, Madam it has a weirdly bleak happy ending. Producer John Sham explains why, "We built an entire set in Hualien, Taiwan. As the shooting progressed, I couldn't think of an ending. Since the budget was running out and the film was already long enough, I decided to burn the city down."
Police Story 3: Supercop (Stanley Tong, 1992) — March 3, 2018
At what point do you think Jackie Chan realized Michelle Yeoh was going to upstage him in every scene? He already had to contend with a vastly overqualified Maggie Cheung, and you just know he didn’t give Yuen Wah anything really cool to do because he was already well aware of what he was capable of (check out Eastern Condors to see how the other Little Fortunes let Yuen show off). These three, along with other cameos like Lo Lieh as the Thai General, make this a lot more fun than Police Story 2, but they otherwise neatly demonstrate the degeneration of Chan’s career as he becomes increasingly obsessed with spectacle and special effects.
Butterfly & Sword (Michael Mak, 1993) – March 28, 2022
Five minutes into this Michelle Yeoh makes fun of Tony Leung for having a small dick.
Directed by Michael Mak, the man who brought us Sex and Zen. But the action is by Ching Siu-tung and it's entirely in the wirefu style of his Swordsman movies: people flying around, heads flying too. In the first fight, Tony uses a bow to fire his sword at his enemies. Later, Michelle uses her oversized sleeves as a bow to fire spears made of further sleeve material as well as Tony himself. It's unclear if this version of the jianghu has developed arrow technology.
Based on a novel by Gu Long, possibly the same source as Chor Yuen's 1970s classic Killer Clans. Tony and Michelle are assassins hired by a eunuch to eliminate a rival wuxia clan that apparently poses a threat to the emperor. Mak doesn't seem the least bit interested in that, however, devoting almost all the space between Ching's action sequences to the heroes' romantic lives. For it seems that while Donnie Yen loves Michelle, Michelle loves Tony, who in turn loves Joey Wong, who loves him back.
Joey has left the jianghu, and thinks Tony has too, and there might be some kind of allegory there about wanting to but failing to leave the martial world behind when one has the chance, but honestly it's all lost in a film that feels like it was sliced in half like one of its many, many doomed extras.
Executioners (Ching Siu-tung & Johnnie To, 1993) — March 8, 2013
Sequel to The Heroic Trio, except with more nuclear apocalypse, good guys dying left and right, and Takeshi Kaneshiro and Lau Ching-wan joining the all-star cast. Still feels like Ching Siu-tung is the driving force here, though the editing is more restrained allowing more time to take in Johnnie To’s visual abstractions, though they are mostly confined to playing with colored lights shot through with white.
Wing Chun (Yuen Woo-ping, 1994) — June 15, 2013
Feminism, kung fu style. A world where everyone, even the love of her life Donnie Yen, mistakes Michelle Yeoh for a man. Where her crafty businesswoman aunt, the delightfully named Abacus Fong, has to trick a man into sleeping with her (which works even though she apparently smells really bad, the result of a lifetime of eating only stinky tofu). Where Catherine Hung’s Charmy, the lust object for an entire town and the local bandit gang, sighs about how as just a pretty woman she’s useless without a man to care for her.
In order to defeat the bad guy and earn his respect, Yeoh must first dress like a woman, then take away his giant spear. As a result of her victory, he has to call her ‘Mommy’.
Shaw Brothers icon Cheng Pei-pei plays Yeoh’s master. She advises her that small, subtle movements can contain great power. This knowledge is essential for her to defeat the bandit leaders Flying Monkey and Flying Chimpanzee and their apelike notions of gender roles.
The Stunt Woman (Ann Hui, 1996) — April 14, 2016
For the first two-thirds of its running time, this is a very cool semi-biographical film (a spiritual sequel to Mabel Cheung’s terrific Painted Faces) with Michelle Yeoh as a Hong Kong stuntwoman who first gains acceptance in Sammo Hung’s crew, then leaves it behind for domesticity with a businessman (as Yeoh herself did when she briefly abandoned acting to marry magnate Dickson Poon). Full of loving looks at the mechanics of shooting wire stunts (Ching Siu-tung was the action choreographer) and the familial camaraderie of a stunt troupe, with Sammo as the avuncular leader, negotiating with producers, directors, and the gangsters that put up the money for production. The third section reunites Yeoh with the crew, only for everything to fall apart in a bizarre jolt of Triad violence, sending Yeoh on the run to the Mainland with Sammo’s precocious tough guy son.
There’s a schematic idea at work here (Yeoh plays three roles: professional, girlfriend, mother), but the transition is really sloppy, like the last third comes out of an entirely different movie (it’s even introduced by a title card where the first two sections are not). This was apparently because production had to be rushed following a serious back injury Yeoh suffered doing one of the stunts (which we see over the end credits), which adds a weird meta-twist to the whole endeavor, as the film itself mirrors the hasty reliance on generic conventions and editing shorthand that its characters rely on in their movies. The effect is disconcerting, but not entirely unpleasant.
The Soong Sisters (Mabel Cheung, 1997) — September 21, 2015
Mabel Cheung’s 1997 historical epic about three sisters. The oldest (Michelle Yeoh) marries one of the richest men in China, a direct descendant of Confucius. The second (Maggie Cheung) marries Sun Yat-sen while he’s in the midst of overthrowing the Qing Dynasty and establishing his Republic. The youngest (Vivian Wu) marries Chiang Kai-shek while he’s in the midst of turning Sun’s Republic into a military dictatorship more concerned with killing Communists than fighting the Japanese that happen to be invading the country.
Cheung introduces it as a fairy tale, three princesses getting the things they want (money, prestige, and power, respectively) at the expense of the family bond. The second marriage estranges Maggie from her father (played by Jiang Wen), the third estranges Vivian and Maggie, and all the while Michelle tries to hold the family together, more for the control over the nation that their unity gives them as for any feeling of familial piety. The allegories are obvious (a nation split apart, first with Western influence (the girls are sent away to America as children) then with internal disputes (finally the three settle in three different Chinas: Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the PRC itself). The film has the gorgeous sweep and cliched dramatics of Zhang Yimou’s films from the same period, but with a harder edge, a radical sting lying just under the surface. The women are vibrant, dynamic, and highly intelligent. Their men are buffoonish, pompous, and ineffectual. The men are limited, the women capable of anything.
Reign of Assassins (2010) — August 12, 2015
John Woo helped produce and by all accounts earned a co-director credit just by hanging around the set everyday and giving advice to director Su Chao-pin here and there. Since his return to Hong Kong, Woo has been involved in three major films (this one, Red Cliff, and The Crossing), none of which really fit with his previous Hong Kong work. All are period films done in a traditional generic form. Reign of Assassins is a romantic wuxia film in the style of someone who is well familiar with Chor Yuen’s late 70s collaborations with writer Gu Long (like The Sentimental Swordsman or The Magic Blade). Michelle Yeoh is a killer who steals a MacGuffin from her group of assassins and goes into hiding. Years later she falls in love and is tracked down by her former fellows. Basically Kill Bill, except her husband has some secrets of his own.
Yeoh is terrific of course, and the action (by Stephen Tung Wai — he played the informant in Hard-Boiled and has choreographed a lot of recent wuxia films, from Bodyguards and Assassins to the Painted Skin series) is solid in that 21st century computer-enhanced style that defines contemporary wuxia. It’s fast and elegant and at times quite lovely. The central romance is lacking, Korean actor Jung Woo-sung (who also starred in the Korean remake of Woo’s The Killer) is fine, but he doesn’t have much chemistry with Yeoh. The villainous pair of Wang Xueqi and his young disciple Barbie Hsu are more electric on-screen. Su glosses over that with music and montage, but while that worked for Woo in The Killer and A Better Tomorrow, it feels hollow here, maybe simply because the music isn’t as good.
Crazy Rich Asians (Jon Chu, 2018) – November 17, 2018
The third best movie about a person visiting Singapore for the first time of 2018.
Although, really that’s being generous. It’s doesn’t take place in Singapore. It takes place in a weird international space called “money”.
Fortunate we are that even in that glamorous zone, the laws of Hollywood romantic comedy still apply even if every other law is unenforceable there.
Last Christmas (Paul Feig, 2019) – March 25, 2022
Michelle Yeoh is in this movie. She plays a character named “Santa”.
Gunpowder Milkshake (Navot Papushado, 2021) – December 23, 2021
Try Hard with a Vengeance
Has some good qualities: bright colors, Michelle Yeoh with an eyepatch, some inventive and fun action sequences, an eerily empty world where there are no people or places outside of the killers and their hideouts. But a truly dreadful script completely lacking in snap just kills everything. Quips are quipped, but they’re never funny and no one believes them.