As beloved franchises Star Wars and Star Trek put on their most recent reboots, both reached out to Hong Kong action stars to bring martial arts energy and veteran gravity to the screen. Donnie Yen stood out in Rogue One as Chirrut Îmwe, the blind Jedi warrior, and recently stole the spotlight from Vin Diesel in XXX: Return of Xander Cage. You may remember Michelle Yeoh from her turn as the least helpless Bond girl ever in Tomorrow Never Dies; this spring she’ll be appearing in the CBS series Star Trek: Discovery as a Starfleet captain.
Donnie Yen’s skill as a martial artist has roots in family tradition: His mother, Bow Sim Mark, was a tai chi grandmaster and one of the first wushu teachers in the West. A favorite film of the martial arts genre, Iron Monkey (1993) gives Yen plenty of space to shine in its near-nonstop fight scenes. He plays a doctor/warrior who at first fights against, and then, with the eponymous Iron Monkey, a Robin Hood-like figure, as the two overthrow a corrupt governor.
SPL: Kill Zone (2005) has an aesthetic that’s part Miami Vice, part film noir: crashing cars in rain-soaked streets and crooked cops versus vicious triad bosses, with Yen as the only honest man (note the Serpico leather blazer). His final fight scene against a twice-his-size Sammo Hung is a bloody, bone-crunching tour de force. Yen deploys a different style in the Ip Man movies, in which he stars as Yip Man, grandmaster of wing chun martial arts (and teacher of a young Bruce Lee), the epitome of the calm, controlled warrior, refusing to fight until forced to. Appropriately, Yen sets aside the blitzkrieg approach of other films for more precise attacks.
Michelle Yeoh’s career has covered everything from the kung fu Disney princess–esque weirdness of 1993’s Holy Weapon to her straight dramatic role as Burmese political leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2011’s The Lady. One of her most notable early films is Wing Chun, in which she plays a tomboyish warrior called upon to defend her village and makes taking out a roomful of thugs look not only effortless but elegant. When someone declares of her opponent, “He won’t surrender. Hit him until he does,” Yeoh responds, “Not hit. Teach.” That’s generally her M.O.: She’s not out to kill her opponents; she just wants them to learn a lesson.
Yeoh is graceful and fluid in her wire work, but does the most damage in fast, close-up attacks. In The Heroic Trio (1992), she stars with Maggie Cheung and Anita Mui in the Powerpuff Girls–Faster Pussycat of martial arts flicks, with the three fighting an undead emperor and his monster army. It’s a film about the power of sisterhood, the necessity of sacrifice and the importance of a good beatdown, with a romantic comedy detour and Evil Dead climax. Yeoh’s skill as an actress and martial artist were probably best displayed in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Ang Lee’s epic tribute to the Hong Kong action films of his youth.
Both Yeoh and Yen are in their mid-50s but have the energy of performers half their age, which might be why both have plenty of upcoming projects. As interesting as their past work may be, there’s even more in the future.