Royal Warriors: When Michelle Yeoh Was Her Best Self

While Michelle Yeoh is finally nominated for an Oscar, her greatest performance is still in action masterpiece Royal Warriors, finds Cian Tsang

As vacuous and enervating as the annual cycle of awards season pageantry can be, there’s something delightful about the potential sight of a triumphant Michelle Yeoh with a trophy aloft, conqueror of a crowd unworthy of her presence. The worship she’s now receiving for her stellar efforts in last year’s absurdist hit Everything Everywhere All at Once is deserved, even if the movie around her is a bit too smug in its obviousness to be wholly palatable.

A new generation of cinemagoers, particularly those whose curiosity rarely stretches beyond American shores, is probably only just becoming acquainted with Yeoh, whose body of work of late has largely been confined to creatively bankrupt Hollywood properties which rather squander her talents.

But to those who’ve witnessed her flying through the air in a flurry of silk and steel in Ang Lee’s iconic wuxia Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, obliterating hordes of sword-wielding goons alongside Cynthia Rothrock in Corey Yuen’s Yes, Madam, or pulling off a Tom Cruise-esque motorcycle jump onto a moving train in Police Story 3: Supercop (four years before the release of the first Mission: Impossible movie), Michelle Yeoh is a living legend—a totemic, practically divine figure in the history of martial arts cinema, blessed with singular elegance and explosiveness.

She’s a bona fide moviestar—that endangered species of ever-increasing rarity—and nowhere would her star power sparkle brighter than in David Chung’s 1986 Hong Kong action masterpiece Royal Warriors, an unsung gem which, perhaps even more so than her most celebrated movies, serves as a perfect vehicle for Yeoh, a work constructed entirely around her specific set of qualities. Although the movie is an ensemble piece in a sense, with Yeoh, Michael Wong, and Hiroyuki Sanada forming a devastating trifecta of heroes on a revenge mission,Yeoh as the brilliant Hong Kong policewoman Michelle Yip is always positioned firmly at the fulcrum, launching herself headfirst into not only some of the most bonkers action ever committed to celluloid, but also into plunging ravines of emotional depth.

The movie’s opening salvo is quite the statement of intent—a dazzling showcase of Yeoh’s combat prowess, and a taste of the brutal frisson to come. No sooner is Michelle Yip introduced than she finds herself at the centre of a whirlwind skirmish in the streets, forced to single-handedly smash her way through multiple assailants after confronting a group of Japanese gangsters. Yeoh’s formative ballet training is immediately obvious in the elastic force with which she dispatches her opponents, effortlessly backflipping her way out of trouble, executing pirouetting spin kick after pirouetting spin kick, dishing out rhythmic, almost musical beatdowns.

She’s a brawler, too. Royal Warriors excels in confronting Yeoh with environments that force her to adapt—aeroplanes, nightclubs, backhoe loaders. And adapt she does, shedding those spectacular accoutrements and instead attacking with a more pragmatic approach. When there’s no time or space for showboating or more expansive combat, Yeoh tucks in the shoulders, lowers her stance, and transforms Yip into a more compact – but no less effective – package of destruction, deploying everything at her disposal: elbows, knees, grapples, fire extinguishers, even the occasional armoured tank.

But for all her preternatural speed and striking power, it’s what Yeoh does in between whooping ass that really sticks, taunting her victims with flourishes that feel borderline arrogant—a smirk, an extraneous waggle of the sword, even an entire warm-up routine. The message, expressed entirely through physicality, couldn’t be clearer: this is a woman completely aware of her athletic supremacy, unshakeably confident that she’s able to turn potentially lethal situations into hyperkinetic works of art, using concrete as her canvas.

Those embellishing touches are facilitated by David Chung, who made a name for himself as cinematographer for such titans of Hong Kong cinema as Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, and Patrick Tam, but who was a relative neophyte in the director’s chair when he helmed Royal Warriors. Despite his inexperience, he understood the assignment perfectly: let Michelle Yeoh be Michelle Yeoh. The beauty of having such a consummate screen fighter, stuntwoman, and charismatic presence at your disposal, supported by a stunt coordinator as accomplished as Hoi Mang, is that you really don’t have to overcomplicate things—the broken bodies strewn across the frame speak for themselves. Chung wisely keeps his camera unobtrusive, simply letting Yeoh flex her muscles as she sings to the tune of Hoi’s pulsating choreography. When you’re working with real fighters, clarity is king.

That purity is a hallmark of classic Hong Kong action filmmaking, a lamentably forgotten style whose master practitioners are yet to be matched for face-melting entertainment, and which, without ever feeling the need to incessantly declare itself as such, was often suffused with a feminist streak. The history of martial arts and wuxia cinema boasts towering heroines, starting with the great progenitor Cheng Pei-pei, whose star-making role as Golden Swallow in King Hu’s seminal 1966 wuxia Come Drink with Me set the bar for all who’d follow. That streak would stretch across decades, from Cheng to Hsu Feng, Kara Hui, Anita Mui, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Rothrock, and more, starring as cops, martial arts instructors, political rebels, master thieves, snake spirits, and superheroes.

It’s not just that these women are given such prominence in such an exhaustive variety of roles – it’s also that, crucially, in so many of these movies, their abilities are taken as the natural order of things. Maybe that makes those movies entirely unreflective of history and society, but that doesn’t make them any less potent. It’s a bold cinematic tradition that dares to so consistently imagine worlds in which women are unyoked from so many of the usual limitations. The record is not spotless—opportunities for women behind the camera were still meagre, with Kao Pao-shu one of the very few to put together a mentionable body of work – but by Western standards, the culture seems practically utopian.

Just watch how swiftly and naturally the machinery of Royal Warriors coils itself around Yeoh, seamlessly slotting in as a dynamic pivot. There’s a short but wonderful scene towards the beginning of the movie in which Yip, returning home to Hong Kong police headquarters after some airborne heroics foiling a hijacking attempt, is welcomed back and congratulated by her colleagues with adorable fanfare, complete with costumes, flowers, and banter aplenty.

It’s a small but meaningful thing, establishing her as an integral part of the workplace family, and a figure of authority who’s universally respected, admired, and loved. And then, it’s back to business as usual: she doesn’t have to prove herself, suffer and withstand opprobrium, or rage against the odious system which insists upon stifling and tormenting her (although she does end up clashing with superiors when they feel that her judgement has been emotionally compromised). She’s the most capable individual and leader in the department, and she knows it, carrying herself at all times with self-assured swagger. Everybody else knows it too, as Yeoh’s charm and effortless aura seem to pull everything into her orbit: she’s the one who everybody listens to in meetings; who tempers Sanada’s fury when his pursuit of his family’s murderers threatens to turn irrevocably extreme; who recruits Wong into the investigative fold; and who, through sheer popularity amongst her peers, leaves her police chief bereft of support when he refuses to follow through on the case.

The emotions wrapped up in all this are big and unrestrained, a job for the sledgehammer rather than the scalpel. A lot of Hong Kong action genre fare of the time tended to careen into swirling melodrama, and Royal Warriors, unashamedly, does exactly that, encouraging Yeoh and the rest of her castmates to dip into their thespian reservoirs. Yeoh is more than capable of surgical precision when it comes to drama, but she’s also happy to go for the massive swings required whenever the story hits wild crescendos (which undoubtedly helped her Oscar-nominated turn in the maximalist Everything Everywhere All At Once). One of the great pleasures of the movie is watching Yeoh ride the ever-escalating stakes, cranking up the sensitivity and vulnerability, allowing herself to seethe, mourn, crumble, regroup, and erupt in righteous outrage, without anything ever seeming slipshod. The feelings are raw, but always under Yeoh’s dexterous control, rising and falling at her command.

If Everything Everywhere cements Yeoh’s deified status in the minds of Western moviegoers, so be it. Immortality and world domination are no more than she deserves. But never forget the wellspring of cascading carnage from which she blossomed. Royal Warriors will forever represent a sublime moment in time, in which one of cinema’s greatest ever performers was at her peerless peak.

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