Veteran Hong Kong martial arts director Sammo Hung first saw Michelle Yeoh in early 1984 when she arrived for a screen test with hopes of landing her very first role, a bit part in the action comedy The Owl vs Bombo.
On Sunday night, Hung watched on as Yeoh picked up an Oscar for her role as the universe-jumping housewife Evelyn Wang in Everything Everywhere All at Once — and he was part of the city that celebrated Yeoh’s win like she was one of their own.
“I’m very happy for her,” said Hung. “She had talent from the very beginning and we could all see that. We have never had many Chinese people standing on this [Oscars] stage. I hope this means there will be many more from now on.”
The Malaysia-born Yeoh turned to Hong Kong’s fabled film industry as her future as a 22-year-old. Injuries had curtailed her dreams of being a ballet dancer, and her training at London’s Royal Academy of Dance, and Yeoh had gone on to be voted Miss Malaysia in 1983. But she was looking for a career change.
On the advice of studio heads, Hung — who had already worked with Bruce Lee in the early 1970s and had helped craft the martial arts stylings of Jackie Chan, among others — was told to give the aspiring actress a chance.
“From the start, she was very easy to work with,” said Hung. “My boss just said here is a girl from Malaysia we want to work with. After that first role we just really wanted to see how far we could go with her. We thought immediately, ‘Why not see if she can become an action star?’”
The 71-year-old Hung — himself honored for his lifetime achievements on Sunday night at the Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong — cast Yeoh in another small role, alongside Chan in 1985’s Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Stars. But in his role as a producer, he then gave her the lead in another action comedy, Yes, Madam, the very same year.
Thus, Yeoh’s future — and her fortune — was set on its path. Yes, Madam was among the first of the genre to cast female leads, and Yeoh threw herself into the challenge of playing a gun-toting inspector chasing down corrupt and often violent gangsters, later revealing she trained for eight hours a day, learning martial arts and sculpting her body to match the image of an action star. The film’s success spawned eight sequels.
“She always worked very hard, from the very beginning,” said Hung. “She’s also had luck and timing. She arrived when the Hong Kong film market was very good, and there were lots of opportunities. She worked hard and she used her talents. When the Hong Kong film industry wasn’t doing well, she found opportunities in America — so she took a chance. Everything Michelle has she has made for herself.”