Michelle Yeoh has been fighting on screen for over two decades. First, performing her own stunts in Hong Kong action films that also made stars of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and later crossing over into English-language films as one of the toughest Bond girls James has ever seen. Now, at 53, the actress has returned to her most famous role as Yu Shu Lien, a female warrior, in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Sword of Destiny.
The new film -- on Netflix and in limited IMAX release on Friday, Feb. 26 -- comes 16 years after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon first captivated audiences with its artistic interpretation of martial arts. The period drama, set in China during the Qing dynasty, combined romance with cinematic views and visually stunning fight sequences. Directed by Ang Lee, it was Sense and Sensibility with martial arts.
For Yeoh, the film experience itself can only be described as a labor of love. "Crouching Tiger was made with a lot of pain," she tells ETonline of the journey to make the movie.
The idea was first pitched to her in 1997 while promoting the James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies. "He painted this watercolor -- you know, this Chinese painting -- and I waited for him," she adds. Soon after, Yeoh and Lee went on a journey together to explore different martial arts and to figure out what story the director was eventually going to tell.
Two years later, after creating Yu Shu Lein with Lee, Yeoh started shooting the film, only to tear her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). It was a serious (and excruciating) injury for the actress, forcing her to get knee surgery. "When I see myself walking so gracefully and slowly on screen, it was because I had a brace on," she laughs.
Despite the setback, Yeoh was able to complete the film, eventually earning a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress for her performance. The film itself won four of its 14 total BAFTA nominations and took home four Academy Awards.
"I have so many fond memories of making the film even though I was living with a lot of pain at that time," she says. "I would have not changed it because of the emotion, the love, the poetry that you could see in the film. It just all came pouring out."
Sword of Destiny -- which Yeoh jokingly says "took a lot of persuasion" for her to do -- was far less painful of an experience. Directed by Yuen Woo-ping, the story takes place 20 years after the first, following the journey in the same series of wuxia novels by Du Lu Wang on which the films are based.
Yeoh's biggest challenge was returning to the martial arts world, which she had not worked in since Reign of Assassins in 2010. But the actress likes the physical challenge and being able to do things -- say, flying through the air -- she can't do in real life. It also doesn't hurt that she's in incredible shape.
"She is stronger than you think," her co-star, Harry Shum, Jr., tells ETonline. "When I first met her, I thought, She is like a momma bear and takes care of you. Then they yelled action and she put me to that ground so fast. I was so stunned -- it was a genuine reaction you saw on screen."
Despite her age, Yeoh is going to keep fighting until it shows on screen. "When you look at my action, you can see I still have the fire," she says. "So, I'm going to be out there kicking a** for as long as I can."