Michelle Yeoh Dissects a 'Master Z' Brawl and Contemplates Taking on Dave Bautista

In Crazy Rich Asians, Michelle Yeoh plays Eleanor Young, the imposing matriarch of a powerful Singaporean real estate family, who stands opposed to her son and heir's American girlfriend (Constance Wu). While no stranger to dramatic roles, Yeoh's flair for action, including starring roles in some of the most successful martial arts movies ever made, gives her a special insight into the ways power, force and conflict are built on screen.

"When I'm doing martial arts movies, I can kick ass and you can feel the visual movement and power," Yeoh told Newsweek. "But this woman, Eleanor Young, she moves very quietly, very elegantly, yet most of the time she commands respect and attention. If a look could kill, you would be tumbling down the stairs."

Yeoh jokingly added that sometimes it was necessary to remind herself not to actually kick Wu's character, Rachel Chu, down the staircase (where they have their most intense clash of personalities in Crazy Rich Asians). Yeoh speaks in action movie terms, so it's no surprise that when her long-time collaborator Yuen Woo-ping—a famed director and martial arts choreographer, most widely known in America for designing action sequences in movies like The Matrix and Kill Billcame to her for his new movie Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, she leapt at the chance.

"I did this movie because of him. When Master Yuen says 'Michelle,' I say 'Yes! When, where, how?'" Yeoh said. "He's like a mentor—like a big uncle—he's such a good friend and it's always fun to work with him, because you know he will always push you to your limits and he'll always get you to do something new."

While the first three movies in the Ip Man series dramatize the life of the Wing Chun master most famous for training Bruce Lee, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy instead follows Cheung Tin Chi, a fellow Wing Chun master still stinging from his defeat in Ip Man 3. Played by Max Zhang (The Grandmaster, Pacific Rim: Uprising), a martial arts wushu champion in his own right, Cheung tries to keep a low profile as a shopkeeper and single father, but soon finds himself embroiled in a power struggle between a gang boss and her jealous younger brother.

As Cheung Lok gang leader Tso Ngan Kwan, Michelle Yeoh brings both the cultivated calm that placed her at the contemplative heart of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the wicked sophistication that's made her portrayal of an evil galactic empress a highlight of Star Trek: Discovery.

Master Z showcases Yuen's endless inventiveness with outrageous action sequences, like a high-wire brawl among creaking neon signs above a Hong Kong nightlife district. It also pits Zhang against contemporary action standard-bearers like muay thai monk Tony Jaa and the indomitable Dave Bautista. But despite the overflowing spectacle of Master Z, the fight between Kwan and Cheung is a series high point, pitting an icon of martial arts cinema against one of its rising stars.

Michelle Yeoh and Max Zhang in "Master Z: Ip Man Legacy." Well Go USA Entertainment

For much of Master Z, Cheung butts heads with Kwan's younger brother Kit (Kevin Cheng), who peddles drugs in Cheung's neighborhood, against the wishes of his gang boss older sister. Despite a temporary alliance, Cheung and Kwan find themselves at odds about what to do with Kit, leading to a confrontation in her office, which happens to coincide with Kit's big power play. As Cheung fights Kwan in her office, Cheung's friend Fu (Xing Yu) holds off Kit's mob of machete-wielding goons. Excerpts from the fight appear in the Master Z trailer (up top), which also includes a scene where Cheung and Kwan demonstrate their martial arts mastery by tussling over a glass of whiskey.

“We sat there, we looked at each other, we said, ‘Let’s go for it, man,’” Yeoh said of the subtly acrobatic scene. “We never spilled it. I think Max and I were challenging each other.” Well Go USA Entertainment

"At the end of the day, it's really like a big dance piece. When I fight with Max Zhang, he's so good. It's like finding the perfect dance partner," Yeoh said of the fight between Kwan and Cheung. While each fight sequence is a complex ballet of violence, Yuen's process is surprisingly improvisational, even if the final result looks like it took weeks of diagramming and rehearsal.

The fight between Kwan and Cheung, including the huge mob fighting just outside of Kwan's office, took a total of seven days to shoot. "There are no rehearsals," Yeoh said. "We get in and learn our moves right there and then."

While the actors are in hair and makeup at the beginning of the day, Yuen's team of stunt men and women are choreographing the action elsewhere on the set. "He has a general plan, a master plan, and he'll have a rough idea or two—how many are coming into the fight, the instruments, what can break. It's wonderful when you walk onto a set and you can see, 'Well, that table is gone, that cabinet is probably going to break,'" Yeoh says, describing Yuen, 74, at work. "You basically just stand there and watch the maestro. He works very closely with his stunt people, these men and women who have been with him for the longest time. And they feed off each other. They'll throw in some moves and he'll come in and—you know how old he is, right?—he'll just get in there."

Yuen directs by example, his precision setting a high standard for each blow. "If it's a good take, he'll just move on. The only thing you ever hear is how to make it better. There's no pat on the back, no bravo. We'll be dancing around and he'll just be like, 'Okay,'" Yeoh said, describing Yuen's reserved approach to directing actors, which she characterized as different on American and Hong Kong sets. "I remember Dave Bautista would say to me, 'Did I do something right or wrong?' I told him, if he doesn't come up to you and say anything, you did it right."

"We talk about work less and less each time because we have such a shorthand," Yuen told Newsweek, describing his long working relationship with Yeoh. The two first collaborated on 1993's Tai Chi Master, starring Jet Li. A year later, Yuen directed Yeoh in Wing Chun, a rare woman-led martial arts movie in a genre dominated by men.

"It's a different era," Yeoh said. "Nowadays, it's all done in a much, much safer environment. When we started doing this in the 80s, the safety standards were not as high and we didn't have the help of CGI, which means we had to use wires that could be hidden in-frame, because we didn't have the budget to erase them."

Like Jackie Chan, who famously ends his movies with a blooper reel of stunt injuries, Yeoh has taken plenty of licks for the genre, including a tumble off the hood of a moving car in 1992's action classic Police Story 3: Super Cop and a torn ACL while filming on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

On a high-impact film set, trusting yourself and your sparring partner is a must. "All of it is really down to choreography and the discipline of being fit and being accurate, because nothing is worse than when you're supposed to kick someone in the chest and you kick them in the head instead," Yeoh said. "That is the greatest respect to the people you fight with—you have the confidence that you won't accidentally hit them."

“Your mindset is to remember the moves right away, to register and perform it right there and then. It’s challenging, physically and mentally," Yeoh said. "We take ownership in our own style." Well Go USA Entertainment

But Yeoh revealed how even fights that go as planned take their toll. "After a full day of physical fighting like this, you look like somebody threw you down a flight of stairs a few times. There's just no escaping it, because there is contact. And it's not just hitting each other once or twice. Each take consists of eight to 15 moves in one go."

Padded costuming can dampen some of the impact, but Yeoh opted to do her Master Z fight in a half-sleeved blouse, her officious appearance a striking contrast with the scene's brutality. "We were fighting each other with our bare arms. I was black and blue by the end of it," Yeoh said. "With those kinds of fights, I usually wear a long blouse or a jacket for a little padding. If I had to fight Dave Bautista, I would wear a bomber jacket, man."

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is in theaters now.