Everything is about Michelle Yeoh is everywhere these days – and with good reason.
A cinematic force to be reckoned with for nearly 40 years, Yeoh earned the first Academy Award nomination of her career this year, thanks to her starring turn in the DIY sci-fi masterpiece “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
With 11 nominations, “Everything Everywhere” is a frontrunner heading into the Oscars on March 12. But this Friday, the first landmark Oscar contender to star Yeoh – Ang Lee’s 2000 “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” – returns to theaters with a 4K restoration.
Yeoh says there’s a very simple reason why the film, part of the Chinese wuxia martial arts film tradition, still resonates with audiences around the world nearly a quarter century after its initial release in 2000.
“It is classic and never gets old,” Yeoh says via email. “It is a fusion of East and West, of Asian film history and Hollywood, of action movies and art house cinema. It is ‘Sense and Sensibility’ with martial arts.”
Based on the novel by Wang Du Lu, originally released in serialized format from 1941 to 1942, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is the epic tale of two warriors, played by Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat, whose paths are intertwined with that of the notorious Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei) and Jen (Zhang Ziyi), a governor’s daughter with a complicated past.
The film – equal parts grand romance, intimate character study and stunning adventure picture – was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won four, including best foreign language film, and earned more than $200 million worldwide.
It represented a turning point in Lee’s career. Previously best known for critical darling dramas such as “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) and “The Ice Storm” (1997), Lee became a blockbuster auteur after “Crouching Tiger,” and won best director Oscars for both “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) and “Life of Pi” (2012).
“Crouching Tiger” was “one of the heydays” in a career spent creating experiences for the cinema, Lee says. He calls movie theaters “the modern temple.”
“I feel like the high priest,” Lee says. “I stage the show, lift people’s spirits, and hopefully life feels different after they walk out of the theater. It’s like a congregation to me, in my mind. That’s something very special.”
“Crouching Tiger” was also a pivotal point for Yeoh, who had already found a fanbase for her work in the 1992 Jackie Chan vehicle “Supercop” and 1996’s “The Stunt Woman.”
“Before ‘Crouching Tiger’ she was hardly doing any dramatic roles,” says Lee. “But I looked at her face, and your emotions are so devoted to her as soon as you look at her, without saying anything, so I really wanted her to carry this movie.”
Working with Lee and fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, Yeoh was able to combine character work and innovative action.
“What I like about Ang Lee is that he is very detail-oriented,” she says. “He believes the training can help us to understand our characters instead of just physical technique or physical training. My character Yu Shu Lien is a very grounded, experienced warrior, so her flight is solid and grounded but powerful. I took calligraphy lessons. Ang believes every detail counts, and it helps to build our characters day by day.”
‘There’s a whole generation that needs to see this movie’
“Crouching Tiger” played to raves at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado.
“I was shocked to see who was in the theater, it was full of teenagers,” says Sony Classics co-president Tom Bernard. “A lot of teenage girls seeing this movie for the first time – and seeing it for the first time on the big screen. … They were just amazed.
“Right there, it hit me. There’s a whole generation that needs to see this movie on the big screen, to see what ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ really was and is.”
The film feels particularly resonant today. Three of its four leads – warrior Yu Shu Lien, mysterious aristocrat Jen and vindictive criminal Jade Fox – each grapple with the boundaries of traditional gender roles.
“These three women represent different generations grappling with gender expectations,” says Yeoh. “Yu Shu Lien is a very traditional woman who carries a lot of burdens, responsibility, duty, obligation, self-control, and personal sacrifice for the big picture. Jen Yu is young, brave or reckless, free-minded and selfish. It is a big contrast to show the different generation and mindset. Jade Fox was bitter and angry to be sidelined, forbidden to learn because she was a woman.”
In a cinematic landscape populated by Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and Daisy Ridley’s Rey in the recent “Star Wars” films, “Crouching Tiger” feels downright prescient.
“If you look at this movie today, it is so relevant in terms of (how) all the different genders are treated in the film, and the respect and power and the way that women are really the dominant characters in this movie,” says Bernard. “They’re dominant in romance. They’re dominating the men in fights. They’re doing passionate things. It’s sort of amazing how a movie like this becomes even more timely.”
Following the critical and commercial success of “Crouching Tiger,” Yeoh collaborated with filmmakers including Danny Boyle and Steven Spielberg, starred in hits such as 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians” and became part of the Marvel, “Star Trek,” “Minions,” “The Mummy,” “The Witcher” and “Kung Fu Panda” franchises.
Her “Everything Everywhere” performance already earned her honors from the National Board of Review and the Golden Globes, and she’s set to star in the Disney+ original series “American Born Chinese” this spring.
“She’s incredible in the film, an amazing performance, and yet she didn’t get nominated. That was a real misstep,” says Bernard. “And she’s been in a lot of things before and after that, and (‘Everything Everywhere’) I think, really brings out the versatility in her talent as an actress and a star. … I’m excited for her, and it’s about time people recognize her abilities.”
More Michelle Yeoh and ‘Crouching Tiger’:
Story Credit: usatoday.com