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Why Michelle Yeoh is the most important sci-fi actress working today

Michelle Yeoh doesn't get enough love for how far she's advanced women in genre storytelling. 

By Tara Bennett
A still from the film Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022).

Whenever critics and pop culture bloggers tend to bandy about the actresses who have indelibly changed the sci-fi landscape, the same names often get invoked: Sigourney Weaver. Carrie Fisher. Nichelle Nichols.

There's no question that these actresses, and their characters, have certainly done a tremendous amount to shift the contemporary discourse around the impact of women in the sci-fi genre for the better. But, when you really crunch the numbers in terms of the sheer number of vital genre roles played by one actress, there's a clear winner that remains woefully under-cited: Michelle Yeoh.

Over five decades, Yeoh boasts the rare acting career that's bypassed country, cultural, and language barriers across multiple genres. Be it in serious pieces (Sunshine); fantastical tales (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings); villainous takes (as Emperor Philippa Georgiou in Star Trek: Discovery); or as an action icon (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Yeoh has pointed her talents at multiple filmmaking cultures, from Hong Kong action films to Hollywood blockbusters and beloved global franchises, and left them all better for having her participation. When you look at her CV today, it's a murder's row of instantly recognizable IP including James Bond, Star Trek, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Witcher, and the upcoming Avatar sequels, with more coming.

And while Yeoh has a robust career in Hollywood and European films, western audiences tend to be woefully ignorant to the fact she's been a major star in Hong Kong cinema since the '80s. She helped elevate women into being box office draws in martial arts cinema and her style is a paragon of physical form and fluidity in the genre. But even with stardom, there's still pigeonholing that happens in east and west casting.

Hong Kong and Hollywood have often siloed Yeoh's talents to slot into specific genre lanes. It's taken writer/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert to finally craft a vehicle that distills all of her outsized talent into one defining role meant to defy all boundaries. In their emotional, multiverse epic, Everything Everywhere All at Once, Yeoh embodies the many lives of Evelyn Wang, a modest Chinese-American laundromat owner who is cosmically determined by the creators of the Alpha Universe to be the potential savior of all existence.

A still from the film Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022).

In Yeoh's genre-defying hands, Evelyn dips wildly into an infinite pool of her alternate selves, which includes flawed mother, bad business woman, distracted dreamer, caretaker, wife, beloved actress, hot dog-handed lover, and even a metamorphic rock with googly eyes. The variations are as endless as what Yeoh's been showing audiences she can do for years. It's just taken a cinematic extravaganza like Everything to daringly stack Yeoh's abilities back to back to back in one concentrated story to see the varied pieces of her career come into such impressive relief.

Not unlike Evelyn's own epiphanies in the movie, Everything gifts audiences with the jarring realization that Yeoh's been doing a myriad of incredible things on-screen for quite some time. She's been quietly brilliant at sliding into genres that don't cross pollinate often. This makes it easy to forget her outstanding work as a stealth disruptor, changing our perceptions about the impact of women, Asian women, and middle-aged women in genre stories. Also, Yeoh's singular ability to seamlessly shift playing fields like a chameleon when needed, while retaining an extremely accessible persona, means she can be used as a powerful grounding entity for a broad swath of disparate audiences. Even the highest concept ideas can be relatable in Yeoh's hands which makes her an especially powerful player in sci-fi storytelling.

Yeoh innately comes off as a knowledgeable expert, so it's no surprise that she's frequently cast as a mentor or the wise figure in various sci-fi ensembles. That makes her a whizz with exposition because she's instantly credible on brainy scales. But, Yeoh can also be a utility player because she's so adaptable in several sectors of storytelling. After more than 30+ martial arts films, Yeoh has a physical presence that can morph from scrappy to lithe, selling punches in films like Silver Hawk (2004) and Gunpowder Milkshake (2021). There's also her emotional intelligence that makes her a reliable interpreter of the stories of the soul as she does as Ying Nan in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) and her calm wisdom that imparts the histories necessary to understand what is at stake in the most fanciful of narratives like her Soothsayer in the Kung-Fu Panda 2. And then she can just walk into a long-running franchise like James Bond with Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and set a new bar for what embodying a great "Bond Girl" means.

In a world where there is some cinematic justice, Everything Everywhere All at Once should cement the power of Michelle Yeoh as one of the pioneers of female genre supremacy. Her name should slip into lists and think pieces and career retrospectives as readily as those of some of her peers in sci-fi and genre, with her spectrum of talents finally seen and appreciated for how important they are.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is now in theaters nationwide.

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