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The Best Martial Arts Movie of 2022: Yeoh! What's Up?

Somewhere in the United States, one superpower and one seemingly pseudo-power, meet face-to-face, for a day of big business that will engulf more than what you think. It’s the IRS, which has ruled the land since 1862 when it created income tax to pay for war expenses vs. the lowly female Chinese American immigrant laundromat owner Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a pawn in the Chinese chess game of life. Major war imminent, the lines between hero and pantomime villain are purposefully ambivalent and ambiguous.

It's the will of one of the most creative and whackiest kung fu films ever, the Yeoh starring Everyone, Everywhere, All at Once (2022), where stale aspiring IRS agent Dierdre will confront the slowly expiring Evelyn that during the audit interrogation, she becomes infected by unexplained mood changes where at one moment she’s here and there, and the next moment elsewhere. Only her seemingly wimpy husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is in the know.

Happiness and life are becoming illusions as a seething pendulum wreaks of impending doom as key battles align to determine the growth and death of incoherent pasts, presents and futures, where sharp rivalries of fortune and fear collide; who’s the predator and who’s the pest? The conundrum of integrated pest management where on one hand, one can be good with kids and on the other hand dastardly creations are geared toward eliminating time un-honored prey.

In the directed and written by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schemert Everyone, Evelyn is unwittingly locked within 4000+ parallel universes where she must embrace her multiverse characters before humanity is destroyed by Jobu Tupaki (Stephanie Hsu) who if Jobu’s date with a giant bagel is consummated, the multiverses will be eliminated.

Just when you think things can’t get more outrageously zany, enter brothers Andy and Brian Le, co-founders with Daniel Mah of the martial troupe called Martial Club who became celebrated YouTube stars. They are Everyone’sfight choreographers, and each have dynamic fighting roles.

Perhaps the club was named in honor of director/fight choreographer Liu Chia-liang’s amazing Martial Club (1981), which starred Liu Chia-hui (aka Gordon Liu) and Chia-liang’s favorite martial villain-actor Wang Lung-wei. The narrowing alley fight between Wang and Gordon is a rock and rollicking masterpiece of choreography. Chia-liang’s schtick in kung fu films was that heroes would befriend their enemies and they’d end up working together for the good of kung fu.

For those that came in late, born as Yang Zi Chong in Ipoh, a small mining town in West Malaysia, Yeoh grew up speaking English and Malay before Chinese. As a teenager she moved to England and studied ballet and acting at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Returning home in 1983 she became Miss Malaysia and Miss Mooba in Melbourne, Australia.

Her acting career started in 1984 after being cast in a commercial opposite Jackie Chan. During a stint at D&B films she was known as Michelle Khan before adopting Michelle Yeoh. In her first film, Owl vs. Dumbo (1985) she plays a subdued, shrinking violet character yet later that year, Sammo Hung cast her in the female cop-buddy film Yes Madam(1986).

Her cop guise continued in Royal Warriors (1986) before being cast in the must-see Indiana Jones yarn, Magnificent Warriors (1987). After the mellow Easy Money (1988), Yeoh married movie tycoon Dickson Poon. He spurred her on to retire and three years later they were divorced. For her comeback film, Stanley Tong directed Jackie Chan's Supercop (1991), and he would only make the film if the world's best stuntman and stuntwomen worked together. Yeoh's return opposite Chan was magnificently engaging. After reprising her cop role in Tong's Project S (1992), her next efforts with Hong Kong's insanely scrumptious, fant-Asia film action director and father of wire-fu Ching Siu Tung’s Butterfly and Swords, Heroic Trio and its sequel The Executioners(all 1993), gave Yeoh’s status and her characters a more mythical dimension.

When she starred in Yuen Woo-ping’s Tai Chi Master (1993) and Wing Chung (1994), it was the first time Woo-ping cast a female as his lead fighter/character. In recognition of her tenacity in dealing with serious stunt injuries without complaint, Sammo dedicated his film The Stuntwoman (1996) to Yeoh. Four years later Yeoh struck it big in mainstream America with her riveting fighting prowess in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Her tough stuntwoman facade captured the country’s attention when it was learned that during a wire stunt gone awry, Yeoh tore her ACL. After a tricky knee operation where two screws and the new ligament put the knee back into place…three and a half weeks later she was back on set finishing her fights.

Back then, with a slight giggle, Yeoh shared with me, “I just landed wrong. Accidents really happen when you do these kind of action sequences, and you've seen the action sequences we do. They're long. It occurred during the very first action sequence of the film. When things like that happen, you've just got to get on with it. After the operation it was just pure pain, hell and rehab.

“It was traumatic, but it also builds character, it makes you learn perseverance and I wasn't ready to pack it in and say, ‘I'm hurt guys. Sorry I'm not coming back.’ I mean you feel the responsibility and that everyone is on the edge saying, ‘Oh my God what are we going to do now? How the hell are we going to replace Michelle?’ It was a challenge. I simply got back in shape for the final fight.”

The Fights of Everyone, Everywhere, All at Once

The film featured brain bamboozling, bodily bending and absolute barmy bedlam as the thrashing and bashing action with its clinical and cathartic sparkle and fizz were the nuts and bolts of incredibly rich veins of martial combat that truly was a force of nature.

The unique quality of the first fight, which takes place in the IRS office between a multiverse leap of her husband Wayland who arrives in the nick of time armed with a fanny pack to protect Evelyn in the now universe against IRS security guards, is most precious. He first wields the pack like Bruce Lee’s nunchaku and then uses it like the meteor hammer in Jackie Chan’s Spiritual Kung Fu (1978). The fight is shot and edited like a Chan wuda pian, and it’s no coincidence that Ke’s posture, hair style and facial quality, mirrors Chan’s look from Police Story (1985), which makes sense considering the film’s impetus was initially conceived to be a Chan driven vehicle, which like time, is rapidly passing by in the film, and in our real lives, faster than a racoon on a rocket ship.

Like a running gag in many Hollywood films, the IRS office fight is a running fight in Everyone, where during the diverse versions of the same fight in other parallel universes, different weapons, martial arts and how the fights are shot are based on the varying styles of choreography and camera work from the five Chinese kung fu genres. It’s pure golden magic.

One version of the fight has the rhythm and visuals of a Liu Chia-liang guo shu pian, while another version has the visual plasticity of an over-the-top Ching Siu Tung wire work wu xia/fant-Asia film extravaganza. This version also featured some unique wire work seen in what I considered to be the second-best film of 2022, Donnie Yen’s New Kung Cult Master 1.

Yet the Le version has some pain-in-butt sequences using what the press called statues, yet you can tell they’re not statues but a giant version of an item that could damage one’s colon into becoming a semi-colon. Perhaps that’s why the fight arrives at a punctual time.

Other highly creative choreography pieces are simply filled with absurd chaotic moments such as: a literal rock and roll bonding with a boulder statement about relationships between sibling and parent; a what the fight between Evelyn and Dierdre who both have floppy hot dog-fingered hands; the 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) simian sensibility sequence; a knife version fight influenced by a Benni Hanna restaurant; and a say no more dildo-wielding villain altercation.

The Pinky Skill slug fest that features training sequences, which goes beyond the nature of pinky handshakes that we use as signs of promise to friends, perhaps prepares Evelyn for the finale Giant Bagel Bash where only she can create the promise needed to save the multiverse. Though we aren’t bread for Bagel Battles, the multiverse kneads dough to pay off the universal languages of kindness, brotherhood and proving that blood is thicker than water even in the river of deceit.

What else is up for Yeoh? She recently received the 2022 TIME Icon of the Year award, which now makes her a strong candidate to win the Best Actress Oscar at the Academy Awards. If so, the 60-year-old Yeoh would become the first Asian actor to receive the Best Actress award.

Years ago, when we discussed martial arts Yeoh made it clear that although she diligently practices martial arts for film, she hasn't had any formal training. To be a complete martial artist one must understand not just the physical aspects yet also the philosophical and spiritual sides.

When I asked her if she had ever felt deprived of those facets, she joyfully shared, "Oh no, that's the sides that attract me most. In the beginning, it was the physical side, getting it out on screen, making sure it looks right and the power and energy is there. As you learn, you might initially get into it because visually it's stimulating or when you see someone do it, it's powerful and you want to be part of that. Once you get into martial arts, it's the philosophy behind it that makes it work. I don't believe in fighting, it's one thing that I stay away from.

“I know you do chi gong. I do martial arts for my own peace of mind and health, and I'm physically and mentally in tune with my own body. Spiritually, it can become very religious and that's when meditation comes in and you can get in touch with your spiritual side. I've been reading more books about that and it's a sense of discovery as well understanding what is around you, and what is beyond the material and physical side."

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