Just in time to celebrate Michelle Yeoh’s Best Actress Oscar win for Everything Everywhere All At Once, Criterion Channel premieres a collection of her earlier work in Hong Kong action films. It’s a full slate of Yeoh favorites that shows how much the Malaysian-born actor kicks ass. And that’s just the beginning of the Criterion Channel’s stellar offerings in March. The streamer has also packed this month with a selection of self-directed features and shorts from the inimitable silent film star Buster Keaton. Plus, there are even more classics from cinema’s early years with a slate of pre-Code Paramount films, including picks from directors Ernst Lubitsch and Josef von Sternberg. Finally, in celebration of Isabelle Huppert’s 70th birthday this month, Criterion Channel has put together a retrospective of her career, with acclaimed favorites such as The Piano Teacher. And as if you need any more enticement to binge some of this great content, many of this month’s picks are quick watches that come in at under 90 minutes—perfect for double features.
The Heroic Trio (1993)
In 1993, director Johnnie To brought three of Hong Kong’s greatest actors together for a bonkers riff on Charlie’s Angels. Anita Mui, Maggie Cheung, and Michelle Yeoh are The Heroic Trio, three badass women whose shared past pulls them together once more to take down a sadistic eunuch from the underworld sewers. The Heroic Trio becomes a lot more fun when its plot falls to the wayside and To shows off the litany of ways in which babies can be hoisted into the air. Not to mention, these women look impeccable fighting crime while bringing their own distinct screen presences to the feature. This film is definitely not afraid to go there, with cannibalistic children, decapitations, and a chilling final fight scene.
Isabelle Huppert plays a nympho ex-nun who dreams of writing eroticism in Hal Hartley’s off-kilter, at times excruciatingly deadpan crime drama, Amateur. Martin Donovan plays a man with amnesia who pieces his life back together after stumbling upon Huppert (playing a character named Isabelle). That life is one of exploitation, violence, and pornography and Isabelle finds herself quickly swept up in it. Isabelle’s insane haircut, a Parker Posey appearance, plus a soundtrack featuring My Bloody Valentine, Pavement, PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, and Yo La Tengo makes this one of the most ’90s movies ever.
Design For Living (1933)
I’ve written about Ernst Lubitsch many times for this column, so it should be no surprise to see a pick from his time at Paramount here. Fredric March, Gary Cooper, and Miriam Hopkins are electric in Design For Living, about a young woman unable to choose between two charming men, so she proposes that all three live together as a platonic throuple to solve the problem. Even by pre-Code standards, Design For Living was seen as rather risqué, with a ménage à trois as its central romance. Naughtiness runs amok and wit is doled out in spades in this work from the master of urbane comedy.
The General (1926)
An Orson Welles favorite, The General contains some of Buster Keaton’s most iconic scenes, including the insanely expensive yet exquisite shot of a train driving across a burning bridge which then collapses into the river. The thing about locomotive gags is—they’re always funny (see: the entirety of film history). The General has them in abundance, with Keaton, playing a Civil War-era Confederate railroad engineer whose beloved train is stolen by Union forces, risking his life time and again to perfect the bit. At the time of its release, The General was considered a box office blunder, and Keaton would soon lose his creative independence for a more restrictive deal with MGM. However, nearly 100 years later, it remains a gem of early American cinema.
Yes, Madam! (1985)
In her first starring role, Michelle Yeoh teams up with Cynthia Rothrock in Corey Yuen’s Yes, Madam! The movie is thin on plot but heavy on fun, giving as much time as possible to Yeoh and Rothrock’s impeccable stunt work. To sum it up: Yeoh and Rothrock play two inspectors who turn in their badges to pursue a crime lord outside the boundaries of the law. A mysterious microfilm is the object of interest for the maniacally laughing Tin (James Tien), who dupes the two inspectors over and over again in order to conceal its contents.
Shanghai Express (1932)
The fourth of seven films Marlene Dietrich made with Austrian-born, American-bred director Josef von Sternberg, Shanghai Express is the most highly regarded of their collaborations. Dietrich stars as Shanghai Lily, a lady of the night whose past catches up with her while traveling on the titular train through China. Co-star Anna May Wong is effortlessly cool, with a presence just as mesmerizing as Dietrich’s. While the film is far from the best representation of the Chinese Civil War, Shanghai Express reminds us that sometimes cinema is at its best when Dietrich’s face fills up a frame, with cigarette smoke swirling around her. So many trains this month!
Love Me Tonight (1932)
An extraordinarily underseen pre-Code flick, Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight is as magical and endearing as its contemporaries. Maurice Chevalier stars in this romantic musical as a tailor (yes, a tailor) who poses as a nobleman and ends up falling in love with a princess (Jeanette MacDonald). The editing of Love Me Tonight feels far ahead of its time, with silky smooth dissolves, split screens, and playful adjustments of speed. The horse riding scenes are a hoot and a half. Mamoulian was heavily influenced by Ernst Lubitsch, and “the Lubitsch touch” can be felt all the way across this delightful film.
Our Hospitality (1923)
Our Hospitality is another hijinks-filled Keaton classic. This one is a satirical spin on the real-life feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families (rechristened by Keaton as the Canfield–McKay feud). Here, Keaton’s Willie McKay falls in love with Virginia Canfield even though her father and brothers are intent on killing him. But protocol demands that as long as Willie remains a guest in the Canfield manor, they’re forbidden by hospitality rules to hurt him. Highlights for stunt fans include Keaton taking on a raging river and waterfall cliff. And don’t worry, this one has train-related comedy, too. On top of his mystifying physical comedy skills, Our Hospitality makes great use of Keaton’s natural sense of romanticism and melancholy, channeled through his sorrowful eyes.
Other shorts worth giving a watch under the collection include “One Week,” “Hard Luck,” and “Convict 13.”