The 15 best Michelle Yeoh movie roles, ranked

The 15 best Michelle Yeoh movie roles, ranked

Welcome to the Multiverse of Michelle.

By Chris Snellgrove March 23, 2023 at 06:50 PM EDT

Movie fans everywhere are celebrating Michelle Yeoh after she became the first Asian woman to win a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once as Evelyn Wang, a laundromat owner who must connect with a number of versions of herself from parallel dimensions in order to save the multiverse itself. But the road to the Oscars wasn’t easy.

“You know, as you get older, the roles get smaller… you start getting relegated to the side more and more,” the 60-year-old Malaysian actress told the Los Angeles Times during the 2023 awards season. “So when Everything Everywhere came, all at once it was very emotional because this means that you are the one who’s leading this whole process, who’s telling the story. It’s about this ordinary woman who becomes a superhero. It’s about you being able to be funny, dramatic, martial arts, like, almost like a horror film. It was like five genres made into one.”

She continued: “You know, as you get older, people start saying, ‘Oh yeah, you should retire. You should do this. You should…’ No, guys. Do not tell me what to do. I should be in control of what I am capable of, right?”

And over her long and storied career, she’s proven she’s capable of quite a lot. Yeoh rose to fame in Hong Kong, starring in action and martial arts movies with the incredible caveat that she wanted to do almost all of her own stunts, including but not limited to swinging from the sides of moving vehicles, tucking and rolling off a car hood on the highway, and even riding a motorcycle atop a train!

But despite her aptitude for action roles, Yeoh’s proven she’s just as capable of carrying a comedy or drama as she is at kicking ass. In the wake of the phenomenal Everything Everywhere, you might be wondering which of Yeoh’s movies you should watch next. Check out EW’s list of her best films below.

15. Boss Level (2020)

While it’s not as good as Everything Everywhere All at Once, movie lovers who like to see Yeoh deal with timey-wimey matters should check out Boss Level, which also stars Frank Grillo, Mel Gibson, and Naomi Watts.

As Grillo told EW, the film is “genre-mashing” — something Yeoh knows a thing or two about. “It’s a full-blown action movie, it’s funny, and then it becomes a bit dramatic.” And it’s easy to see how the premise — in which Grillo is living in a Groundhog Day-style time loop where he keeps getting killed by lethal assassins — lends itself to so many film styles.

Yeoh is not in Boss Level for very long, but she steals every scene she is in. When our leading man realizes he will have to best a sword-wielding warrior, he turns to Yeoh’s character, a master swordswoman, to help him train. They only have one day to prepare, but since our protagonist is stuck in a time loop, he gets to learn more from Yeoh each time, eventually becoming a master swordsman himself. As for Yeoh, she alternates between infusing her scenes with warmth, humor, and practical martial arts wisdom in between epic sword fights that only she could unleash.

14. The Heroic Trio (1993)

If we had to describe Yeoh’s career in just one word, it would likely be “momentum.” Many of her best and most influential works, like the 1993 kung fu masterpiece The Heroic Trio, are not as well known to Western audiences. Nonetheless, these roles helped establish her as an insanely skilled physical actor who also had enough emotional depth to headline later movies such as Everything Everywhere All at Once. And her experience with this film is one of the reasons that EW’s Clark Collis believes Yeoh should get a chance to square off with John Wick in a future installment of that hit action franchise.

The plot of The Heroic Trio is simple enough, but it foreshadows Yeoh’s inevitable introduction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s because this is basically a superhero film where the titular trio of badass women must work together against a villain known as the “Evil Master,” but only after Yeoh’s character realizes the depths of his depravity and finally stops serving him. Think of this film as a kind of kung fu martini that was prepared using a shaker full of superhero tropes, and the final result is honestly more exhilarating and refreshing than most of the genre’s recent works. And after you see how Yeoh shines in this role, you’ll wonder why she isn’t headlining her own Disney MCU spin-off by now. She does, however, star in Disney ‘s upcoming action-packed American Born Chinese series.

13. Gunpowder Milkshake (2021)

Though Gunpowder Milkshake, the femme-centric, John Wick-style movie starring Yeoh, Lena Headey, Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, and Karen Gillan, is a crowd-pleaser, there are some who criticize the film for being a bit too derivative. Regardless, it’s a ridiculous-yet-fun film in which Yeoh is clearly having a good time, most likely due to the chemistry she has with her incredible castmates. You can see a glimpse of this in a video Headey posted to Instagram taken on set where she offers a friendly greeting, to which Yeoh cheekily responds “f— off.” 

In many ways, this offscreen relationship mirrors the one their characters have in the film. Headey plays Scarlet, a master assassin who has left the lifestyle, while Yeoh plays Florence, a member of their violent sorority who, like her two other sisters, is angry with Scarlet for never making contact with them after she disappeared. It’s a performance that leans on two of Yeoh’s best gears as an actor: her steely maternalism as well as her fluid grace during the action scenes. While that artistry is captured by a slo-mo sequence toward the end, her “blink and you miss it” fight scene earlier in the movie — where she uses a chain as a weapon — serves as a reminder of just how fast (and fierce) she still is in 2021.

12. Far North (2007)

Yet another reason why we love Michelle Yeoh is that she isn’t afraid to take chances with very different kinds of roles. A great example is Far North, a hard-to-stomach film set in the arctic where she plays Savia, a woman who, at birth, was prophesied to inflict evil onto everyone she encounters. She eventually lives a quiet life in relative isolation, but when she and her daughter meet a runaway soldier (played by Sean Bean), events are set in motion that may ultimately reveal just how true that original dark prophecy really was.

This Asif Kapadia movie isn’t for everyone. It alternates between bleak and unrelenting glimpses of characters leading ragged lives, all while inviting symbolic analysis (it’s tough to ignore Bean’s character identifying himself as Loki, after all) that never really goes anywhere. However, Yeoh’s performance is a real tour-de-force, compelling audiences to seesaw between sympathy for her harsh life and outright fear that she might be scarier than the shaman could have ever foreseen. If you’re someone who enjoys finding beauty in the brutal, there is ultimately much to love about this film — and Yeoh’s truly haunting performance.

11. Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (2018)

Sometimes it’s difficult for those outside of Chinese film productions to realize how dedicated actors like Michelle Yeoh have to be to bring these stories to life. This is something MCU star Dave Bautista discovered firsthand when he starred in Master Z: Ip Man Legacy.  As he told EW, “It was hard, hard days,” but he was willing to endure the “guerrilla filmmaking” because he was such a fan of director Yuen Woo-ping. The filmmaker is a legend in the world of kung fu filmmaking, and his movie allowed Yeoh to show a new generation of martial artists why she’s still one of the best in the business.

The premise of her character Tso Ngan Kwan is that she leads a criminal syndicate but has aspirations of the gang going straight. In this role, we see her protective side, as she tries to safeguard her hotheaded younger brother while also unleashing her inner warrior on anyone who gets in the way. Best of all, though, is how Yeoh’s playful performance is, at times, even more impressive than her stunts. That said, watching her finesse moves while balancing a full glass of water and never spilling a drop feels a bit like watching a master painter bring her latest vision to life.

10. Yes, Madam (1985)

As a high-adrenaline Hong Kong action flick, Yes, Madam is not the kind of film that many Western moviegoers are familiar with. But it was the work that ended up shaping Yeoh’s career for decades to come. As EW’s Clark Collis notes, the movie was the actress’ “first foray into stunts,” and she had to give it her all because she was also fighting against sexist perceptions of her ability. Yeoh told Collis that producers “were afraid that nobody would believe that a mere girl would be able to do all these things,” so she had to quickly show that she could really perform such mind-bending stunts with no assistance. “When I went into my first action sequence, I had to demonstrate that I was the one doing it, that there was no stunt double.”

Fortunately for Yeoh and audiences alike, this flick about two inspectors teaming up to retrieve an important microfilm ended up being a major success. This was due in no small part to Yeoh’s amazing action chops. Going into filming, she was worried about living up to the high expectations set by famous performers such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li. But her action scenes (especially the final fight near the end of the movie) are both epic in scope and hypnotic in captivating beauty. It’s genuinely difficult to take your eyes off Yeoh and the sheer amount of kinetic chaos she produces without the help of stuntmen or special effects (beyond some killer wirework).

9. The Lady (2011)

It’s always bold to say that an actor was “born to play” a particular role, especially when a talent like Michelle Yeoh has the kind of chameleon chemistry to portray so many different kinds of characters. Nonetheless, she was most definitely born to play Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady, a movie that EW described as one of those “sweeping historical dramas about individuals standing up to oppressive regimes.” 

In this case, Yeoh plays the daughter of Aung San, a real-life hero who helped lead Burma to independence. When she returns to Burma decades later, she sees the need for political reform, creating her own party and winning the general election in the early ’90s. But retribution was swift and brutal: The corrupt military did not accept her victory, forcing her into house arrest and keeping her from seeing her husband for the rest of her life. Kyi ultimately won the Nobel Prize, but at a terrible cost to her family and her own happiness. 

This true story needed no embellishment to be both entertaining and provocative, but what this ambitious Luc Besson film did need was an actress to bring the role (and the inspiring woman) to life on screen. And Yeoh is pitch-perfect in her performance as a reluctant leader willing to risk everything if it means justice for her country. Her moments with her husband (played by David Thewlis) showcase her emotional vulnerability, but her scenes where she rallies a nation and takes on a manipulative military show that deep down, Kyi, like Yeoh herself, is made of hardened steel. 

8. Kung-Fu Panda 2 (2011)

When reflecting on Yeoh’s impressive acting résumé, it’s easy to overlook an animated feature such as Kung-Fu Panda 2. After all, she is one of the greatest dramatic performers and physical actors in the world, and here, she voices a soothsayer goat in a kid’s movie where the headlining talent is Jack Black as what EW’s critic describes as a “clown-eyed, roly-poly kick-ass panda bear hero.” However, Yeoh has the uncanny knack of elevating every movie she is in, and her scenes where she acts alongside Gary Oldman‘s character Lord Shen become downright Shakespearean in their emotional depth.

Oldman and Yeoh both effectively ground their scenes with a certain emotional resonance that contrasts nicely with the madcap misadventures of Black’s silly panda Poe. In fact, she’s responsible for telling our titular hero about the death of his parents and a rather horrific panda genocide. In other words, she doesn’t exactly get to flex her comedic chops in this movie, but instead gets to serve as a kind of compassionate, wisened mentor who is unmoved by the chaos and tumult of the world around her — and you’ll be thinking of her quietly powerful scenes long after the credits roll.

7. Sunshine (2007)

Sunshine is very different from much of Yeoh’s cinematic body of work. As EW’s writer put it, this Danny Boyle film is an “extraordinary homage to philosophical sci-fi,” involving astronauts trying to use a nuclear bomb to jump-start the sun and effectively save planet Earth. And considering that the outer atmosphere’s environment is always so sterile, Yeoh’s character Corazon helps breathe life into the movie, both metaphorically and literally.

Here, she plays a biologist who helps maintain the ship’s oxygen supply, which comes in the form of a beautiful garden. The movie is guilty of leaning into cultural stereotypes by making Yeoh’s character a kind of spiritual influence that contrasts with the more Western sensibilities of the other astronauts, including those played by Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans. Ultimately, though, Yeoh shows how well she understood the assignment by infusing each of her scenes with a passion for her field and an unyielding desire to discover the unknown (which also made her such an organic addition to the initial cast of Star Trek: Discovery).

6. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Even among hardcore James Bond fans, Tomorrow Never Dies is considered one of the weaker entries in the series, especially as the sophomore outing for Pierce Brosnan as everyone’s favorite superspy. However, the film is notable for exactly one thing: helping to introduce Western audiences to Michelle Yeoh in all of her ass-kicking glory. As EW’s critic wrote in his review, she was primarily known as an “imperious Hong Kong star” at the time, but this flawed sequel gave her a real Hollywood foothold that opened doors to more impressive movie roles in the future.

And, with respect to Brosnan and the rest of the talented cast, Yeoh is the single best part of the film. She embodies the qualities of a great Bond Girl, floating flirty chemistry with Brosnan and a cheeky sense of humor that puts the secret agent in his place. But she also brings the kind of raw talent to the screen that makes her fight scenes feel fresh, fluid, and kinetical. Ironically, these scenes hold up the best because most of the film is a lame retread of earlier Bond adventures, but adding kung fu to break up the usual boring fisticuffs and gunplay helps make these scenes feel almost transgressively dynamic.

5. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

As Marvel movies go, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings sets itself apart from the pack, eschewing godly hammers or incredible suits of armor in favor of good old kung fu combat. This was to the benefit of the film, as EW’s critic asserts, “The action is mostly fought with fists or ropes or arrows, which makes its obligatory stream of mortal combat feel almost balletically brutal… and far more elegant than the genre usually allows.” This gracefulness is largely thanks to a stacked cast that includes Yeoh, who’s game to bring her level of beautiful beatdowns to the MCU.

As Ying Nan, Yeoh’s character has a special connection to Simu Liu‘s Shang-Chi: She is both his aunt and the guardian of the mystical village known as Ta Lo. She gets stuck offloading exposition in the movie, but this is offset by a wonderful sparring scene where she shows her nephew just how much he still has to learn. Yeoh, once again, moves with her usual liquid grace, but it seems to stand out even more against the backdrop of a Marvel movie. In a studio whose films seem contractually obligated to end in a messy blur of CGI, Yeoh’s demonstration of practical martial arts skills comes as a huge breath of fresh air.

4. Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

When Crazy Rich Asians came out, it was something of a revelation for audiences hungry for a movie that deals deftly and playfully with race rather than delivering heavy-handed messaging with the monotone of an old after-school special. The movie is, as EW’s critic writes, “a peek at the crazy-rich rainbow of Asian experience — even one as razzle-dazzlingly too much as this one — feels not just new, but way overdue.”

And the film makes great use of how intimidating Michelle Yeoh can still be even when she isn’t branding a sword or delivering a perfectly timed kick. As overbearing mother Eleanor, Yeoh serves as the primary obstacle in American woman Rachel’s (Constance Wu) attempts to win over the wealthy family of her boyfriend (Henry Golding), whose pack is practically royalty back in Singapore. In another actress’ hands, this role would be a one-note “evil mother” performance, but Yeoh adds to the rich texture of Eleanor’s background and how seriously she takes the need to put family first. Over the course of the film, her character is likely to make you both shout at the screen and cry tears of joy, a range of emotions that can only be evoked by an artist with immaculate depth and grace.

3. Supercop (1992)

One of the reasons that Michelle Yeoh eventually became the go-to gal for epic stunts and fighting scenes is because of the extent of her experience, and that includes Supercop, a movie with possibly the most ambitious stunts ever filmed. This includes scenes of Yeoh (no stunt woman needed) driving her motorcycle onto a moving train and, later, jumping from a truck roof to the hood of a convertible. In EW’s interview with the actress, Yeoh summed up her performance bluntly: “I was doing the most insane stunts.”

The plot of Supercop is almost incidental: Jackie Chan is a Hong Kong “supercop” who must team up with Yeoh’s Beijing-based Interpol inspector to take down a drug lord. On paper, this may sound like your typical buddy cop movie, but it’s the incredible action scenes that set this film apart, garnering praise from Quentin Tarantino for having “the greatest stunts ever filmed in any movie ever.” In fact, the only downside to seeing everything Yeoh does in this movie is that you begin to realize how underutilized she has been in so many other action films.

2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Part of the appeal of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is that it proves one movie can encompass multiple styles and genres all at once. As EW wrote in a retrospective, the film “is as much a romantic, poignant drama as an action movie, dealing with themes of emotional repression… societal roles and expectations… and the sins of the past.” It combines Western cravings for kick-ass kung fu with wuxia battles that take everything to the next level, but the entire thing is grounded by Yeoh’s standout performance.

Given her extensive martial arts movie background, it only makes sense that this film casts Yeoh as a martial arts master at the top of her game. Director Ang Lee makes great use of her skills to create the kind of onscreen swordplay that’s the stuff of legends. Most impressively, Yeoh portrays a warrior who can balance her great martial prowess with mercy and even love for Li Mu Bai, a fellow martial arts master played by Chow Yun Fat. She embodies a full range of emotions just as the film embodies a full range of genres, and action movies have never been quite the same since she picked up her sword all those years ago, showing the audience how nuanced a warrior protagonist could be.

1. Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

A large part of what makes Everything Everywhere All at Once so emotionally resonant is how it explores the idea of “the road less traveled” through a very chaotic and cosmic lens. Yeoh’s character sees firsthand what her life could have been like in other realities, forcing her to grapple with the philosophical question of whether she is more unhappy with her present circumstances (running a laundromat, getting audited by the IRS, being served divorce papers by her mild-mannered partner) or unhappy with herself (the woman whose life was defined, and not necessarily for the better, by having ran away with her husband-to-be, played by Ke Huy Quan).

The multiversal madness of this dimension-hopping story is difficult to understand, but the plot is expertly anchored in Yeoh’s performance. As EW’s Leah Greenblatt noted in her review, Yeoh is an “inexhaustible” force that does “much of the work to ground what often feels, with its dream logic and layer-cake Inception feints, like a coded story whose secret key you haven’t been invited to share.” 

The real magic of this film, though, is that the title could just as well be a reference to Yeoh’s life and her career. She’s portrayed a variety of characters over the years, such as the beleaguered wife, the stern matron, the swift warrior, and the occasional ruthless killer. The ambitious design of Everything Everywhere All at Once means that Yeoh — in a cinematic twist on Jungian self-actualization — gets to combine a medley of these famous castings into her freshest, most iconic role yet. She explores every version of herself and, in turn, helps the audience examine their own roads less traveled in a film that makes the MCU’s exploration of the multiverse look like amateur hour.

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