"Supercop" as woman warrior

Hong Kong cinema's queen of stunts talks about screen names, ballet moves -- and learning to ride a bike.

Published July 22, 1996 10:37AM (EDT)

Nothing divides the sexes quite as effectively as the Hollywood action movie. On the screen, some muscled protagonist spits bullets and bon mots; in the aisles, men punch the air and whoop while their dates cross their arms and roll their eyes. The male viewer, thrilled giddy by the swaggering of his onscreen avatar, enters the action film's dream of ultimate power; women, typically, feel left out.

All this should change when Miramax releases Jackie Chan's "Supercop" to U.S. theaters this Friday, presenting the 1992 action classic to a wide American audience for the first time. Appropriately, the movie is not from Hollywood but from Hong Kong, where the cultural expectations of the action movie are far more complex and the role of women in them is more prominent. In "Supercop" -- where the lead actors perform all their own stunts in a hurtling series of set-pieces that grow increasingly, insanely precarious -- the stars do far more than simple acting: they, as much as their characters, become heroes.

Heroes and heroines. For Chan's onscreen partner -- playing a Chinese police chief -- is Michelle Yeoh, Asia's top female action star. (To the consternation of many Hong Kong cinemaphiles, "Supercop's" reissue will be dubbed -- both leads provide their own voice-overs -- and Yeoh will be listed in the credits as "Michelle Khan," a moniker perceived as more Western-friendly.)

Lithe, ferocious, awesome, Yeoh's performance is both summation and pinnacle of the "Woman Warrior" figure in Hong Kong cinema -- which is itself a continuum of the Chinese myth and folk history that gave it form. Maxine Hong Kingston's memoir of the same name recounts one of these tales: A girl leaves home to learn kung fu, then returns as a general riding at the head of an army of men to defend her village from a monstrous horde. Legends like these are the psychic source material for Hong Kong filmmakers; even in contemporary-era films, they resonate through the popular subgenre of the lady cop/adventurer movie.

Though Chan's own breakneck agility can never be overstated, Yeoh equals him at every turn. One moment she's mid-air and kicking two men with either foot; the next she's rolling on and off the roof of a careening van. And in one heart-throttling sequence, she charges down a hill on a motorcycle and leaps, bike and all, onto a speeding train.

Born in Malaysia, Yeoh studied ballet in England and later won a Miss Malaysia crown in a beauty pageant. A contract with Hong Kong billionaire Dickson Poon's studio led to several action films in the mid-'80s. Poon subsequently married her, and at his insistence, she retired from the screen. Their divorce led to her comeback in "Supercop."

In the United States to complete her dubbing and to promote the film, Yeoh is still recovering from an 18-foot fall sustained in her last film, "The Story of Ah Gum, Stuntwoman": "Instead of landing on my feet, I landed on my head. I honestly thought at that moment that that was it. I had pushed my luck to the limit, and now it's payback." Miraculously, it wasn't.

Disarmingly gracious and unassuming, Yeoh also speaks fluent -- and mellifluous -- English, which should help her find her place on the American screen.

What made you decide to come out of retirement with "Supercop"?

When I was getting a divorce, I must say the Hong Kong film industry was very supportive [that I revive my career]. If they didn't encourage me, I probably would have gone back to Malaysia or England. And I had promised [director] Stanley [Tong] when he was still a budding stunt coordinator that one day when he had a great movie I would star in it for him. It was my coming-out movie, and I needed to be with good friends and people I trusted. I needed to feel confident. That is why I think I did all those crazy stunts.

Tell me about what must have been your most dangerous stunt in "Supercop," the motorcycle jump. How did you prepare for it?

I give Stanley a lot of credit. If you look at Jackie's history, he never has women fighting in his films. And when Stanley approached me, I said, "Look, you have to promise me that I'm not just going to be the normal Jackie Chan girl."

So he told me about this stunt. "OK, I've worked out the ending scene. Jackie is going to jump up onto the helicopter, and you have to go after him, so you hop onto a bike, and then you see Jackie land on a train, and you have to find some way of getting on the train. OK?"

So I say, "Yeah, that's good. But then, I don't know how to ride a bike."

So he said, "OK, we're going to teach you." We had two weeks before that stunt. My first introduction to a dirt bike was in a car park in Kuala Lumpur. So I learned to ride the bike with these guys running around after me. The dirt bike is quite a high bike, so when I stop, I can't balance on it, because my toes literally dangle off the ground. And so when I go past the camera, I just throw the bike and leap off.

Stanley knew if I wanted to do something, nothing was going to stand in my way. Jackie tried to stop us, because he knew how dangerous it was. And all my stunt boys, I think they were more frightened than me. Because when you're doing a stunt, you're so hyped up, you don't feel pain, you don't feel fear, you're just raring to go, and raring to get it done right.

[I did the jump] at least three times. One time I got banged up pretty bad. And all my stunt boys are saying, "All right, that's it." But I said, "Give me one more chance to do it right, come on!" Stanley could see that my leg was bleeding, but he knew that I was trying to hide it from him, so he was looking away. That's the thing that keeps us going. Crazy, right?

Did your training in ballet prepare you for learning martial arts?

It was easier with that background. I already had the advantage of being in control of my body. The next thing was learning the facial expressions, the look in the eyes, the little nuances, the power. At the end of the day, I'm still not an expert. But there's a sense of acrobatics, stance and fluidity that goes with my movements, which I think brings a nice touch to it. It's very much my own little style.

Why do you think there are more heroic women in Asian films than in Hollywood movies?

I would really like to ask you guys that question! Why is it such? Because it would be easier to think that Easterners are more sexist, dare I say.

There are very strong women characters in Hollywood, not in action, but here and there, and you have some incredible actresses. It's just a little lacking in action movies. Is it a cultural thing? I wish I had the answer.

Why was it decided to use Michelle Khan as your name for American audiences?

Terence Chang is my manager here, and we discussed it. I would have preferred to use Michelle Yeoh. My full name is Yeoh Chu-Kheng. When someone calls me Chu-Kheng, that means they know me from the very first day I arrived in Hong Kong. Michelle is a name I adopted three years [later]. I spent seven years in England using my own Chinese name, and then I go to Hong Kong, and I have an English name!

At one period of time, with action movies, whenever they went to Europe, they didn't want them to be Chinese-sounding, so everybody had English-sounding names. That's the reason why we adopted Khan. So here, people remember me as Michelle Khan because of all the old videos and things like that, and I think that's the reason why I'm stuck with Khan.

If "Supercop" makes you a star in America, would you like to move your film career to Hollywood?

I'd like to do something out here. A few A-writers in Hollywood have been great fans of Asian films, and so they know of me and they know of my work. And I've had a couple of stories that were pitched to us. Hopefully, something will come of it.

It's just very exciting to be here, and to have my movie on the big screen, not just in Chinatown, but nationwide.

I never thought I would be in the business to start off with. I thought I would start my own school in Malaysia and teach dance, do concerts, things like that. I went to Hong Kong and everything changed. So now I just go with the flow.

By Wagner James Au

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

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