Michelle Yeoh goes on a mind-bending trip in Everything Everywhere All at Once
Michelle Yeoh was shooting a fight sequence with Jamie Lee Curtis for the sci-fi-action-comedy-drama Everything Everywhere All at Once (out March 25) when the actress realized that she had met a soulmate in stubbornness. "She loves doing everything on her own," says Yeoh, 59, of Curtis. "I said, 'Please don't jump down the stairs on the wire.' She's like, 'Why not? That sounds like me. People will say, 'Don't do that!' I'm like, 'Why not?'"
Curtis is happy to admit that she had much to learn from the Hong Kong action movie veteran when it came to the art of onscreen fighting. "It was day two or three, I was flying on wires, landing, and fighting with f---ing Michelle Yeoh in an abandoned office building in Simi Valley," says Curtis, 63. "I learned a lot. She is the master, I am the student. She taught me that it's not how hard I punch, it's how she receives the punch that is the art form, which really sells the magic."
Selling the martial arts magic is just one skill Yeoh has mastered. In a career with highlights including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Crazy Rich Asians, Star Trek: Discovery, and last year's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the actress continues to burnish her chops as a serious and comedic actress in addition to her abilities as an onscreen fighter. In Everything Everywhere All at Once, Yeoh shows off all those talents and more — if not quite all at once, then repeatedly and in quick succession. The film, the second movie from the Swiss Army Man filmmaking duo Daniels (a.k.a. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), stars Yeoh as Chinese immigrant Evelyn Wang, the stressed-out manager of a failing Los Angeles laundromat. She has a strained relationship with her queer daughter, a floundering marriage with her husband, and is attempting to sort out her byzantine taxes on top of all that.
If you think that sounds like the set-up for a well-meaning but dull family drama, you're putting your coins into the wrong washing machine. In the middle of an interview with Curtis' IRS inspector Deirdre Beaubeirdra, Evelyn is enlisted to defeat an evil force that threatens an infinite number of universes. "She is suddenly thrown into the multiverse," says Yeoh. "She has been told she may be the only one who can help the other universes because the evil is spreading. And [she's] going, 'I'm trying to solve my taxes, please do not give me any more problems, okay?'"
In the course of the movie, Yeoh's reluctant heroine visits a number of alternate dimensions, including one where she is a fabulous movie star named Michelle Yang and another where she and Curtis' character are lovers with hot dogs for fingers. (Yes, you read that correctly: hot dogs for fingers.) Through her travels, Evelyn acquires skills and talents that help her save our world and the multiverse itself while simultaneously negotiating her family's various issues and, yes, sorting out her tax situation. The result is a wild and crazy showcase for the actress who believably inhabits a diverse array of characters while continually reminding the viewer of her prowess as a movie martial artist supreme.
Or, as Curtis puts it: "This is a bow-down-and-kiss-Michelle-Yeoh's-f---ing-feet movie."
Michelle Yeoh is talking to EW over Zoom from France, where she is attending Paris Fashion Week and visiting her longtime partner, former Ferrari CEO Jean Todt. That sentence might scream chic, global superstar but behind the surface are the bumps and bruises of an actor who has spent much of her career punching, kicking, and falling, often to the detriment of her physical well-being. Asked how much she has been injured in the course of her now almost four-decade-long career, Yeoh replies, with a sigh, "I think it's probably easier to say where I have not had an injury. I've had some pretty serious falls and incidents where I thought, I've broken my back this time, or that's the end of the road. But somebody is watching out for me, and I'm very, very grateful for that."
Born and raised in Malaysia, Yeoh dreamed of running a ballet school in her homeland. "I loved being in the world of dance," she says. "I wanted to expose more young girls and boys [to] the beauty and discipline of ballet. I used to go to the cinemas all the time because my mom was a huge movie buff, but I never thought, staring up at the silver screen, that one day I would be up there." Yeoh suffered a back injury when she was a teenager and abandoned her dance plans. She began competing in beauty pageants, winning the title of Miss Malaysia in 1983, and was soon cast opposite Jackie Chan in a watch commercial made by D&B Films, a Hong Kong-based production company co-founded by Chan's fellow martial arts legend, Sammo Hung. "Straight after that, D&B offered me a contract," says the actress. "I thought, you know, what the heck? I'm 22 years old, I've got nothing to lose, right? Nothing ventured, nothing gained!"
Yeoh's first onscreen role was in the 1984 action-comedy The Owl vs. Bumbo, directed by Hung, who also starred. "Oh, I played the damsel in distress. Yay!" she says with mock cheer. While watching her male costars shoot their martial arts action sequences, Yeoh had a revelation: "I thought, hey, this is very much like dance, this is like a choreography piece, a musical. How is this so different from what I have been spending the past two decades of my life doing?" When D&B asked what kind of role the actress wanted to play next, Yeoh had her answer ready. "I [said], 'I'd love to try action,'" she recalls. "They looked at me like I had gone a little cuckoo." For good reason. "The action movies in Hong Kong at that time were really real," Yeoh says. "There is no green screen; there are no cables. Everything is physical; everything is contact. That was the period of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jet Li. I mean, Jackie, Jet, Sammo, they all have scars they can show you to tell you how their movies were made."
But, hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? "I didn't want to just play the damsel in distress," she says. "I felt that the girls were not given the right exposure or the proper respect. Women don't have to sit back and wait to be rescued." Yeoh's first foray into stunts was in 1985's D&B-produced Yes, Madam!, where she and American martial artist Cynthia Rothrock starred as a pair of cops. Prior to shooting the film's first action sequence, Yeoh made it clear that she intended to perform the stunts herself. "[The producers] were afraid that nobody would believe that a mere girl would be able to do all these things," she says. "When I went into my first action sequence, I had to demonstrate that I was the one doing it, that there was no stunt double. I mean, Jackie, Jet, all of them, you could see that they were the ones doing these stunts. So unless you can step up to the plate like they do, then you would not be playing the same game." The movie was a box office hit in Hong Kong, and Yeoh was off to the bone-crunching, ligament-straining races, subsequently starring in a clutch of action films, including 1987's Dynamite Fighters and the same year's Easy Money.
Yeoh retired from acting in the late '80s after marrying Sammy Hung's fellow D&B founder Dickson Poon. The marriage was short-lived, and Yeoh returned to the screen with 1992's Supercop, the film that would cement the actress' place in the action-movie hall of fame. Directed by stunt coordinator-turned-filmmaker Stanley Tong, the film starred Yeoh and Jackie Chan as cops who attempt to take down a drug lord. It also includes the incredible sight of Yeoh riding an actual motorbike onto an actual moving train. Says Yeoh: "What was I thinking? I was swinging at the side of trucks. I was riding a motorcycle onto a moving train. I was doing the most insane stunts."
Including one that almost killed her. It involved Yeoh leaping from the roof of a truck onto the hood of a convertible driven by Chan, both vehicles speeding down a highway. "In Asia at that time, we don't really do rehearsals; we don't have weeks of preparation. We learn the stunt, and we do it," says Yeoh. "So you park the [truck] and Jackie's car next to each other, and you look at it, and it's about a six-foot fall, it's not much, and you think, I could do this. But once the two cars are moving, you go, oh, wow, this is a completely different experience. I'm not standing still, the car isn't, nothing is still. I don't know whether it was crazy, a moment of insanity, [but] the thought that went through my head was, you're never going to know how it feels until you try it." The first go-round, Yeoh hit the hood but then fell off the car and hit the road, narrowly avoiding two cars coming up from behind. "The windscreen was supposed to shatter, and that would have helped me have a break," she says. "But the windscreen didn't shatter, I had nowhere to hold onto, and I kept sliding off the car. All I remember was like 'Duhn!' on the ground. Fortunately, I didn't go head first. Then I hear Jackie. He was like, 'Okay, okay, that's it! Enough! We are finished for the day! We're not doing anymore! This is stupid! This is ridiculous! We're not doing it!'"
The really crazy thing was what happened next. "Stanley and I go back a long way [to] when he was a stuntman," says Yeoh. "So he understands the level of who I am and what I can and am willing to do." She was willing to try the stunt again. "When you fall off a horse, you jump back, right on, right away," she explains. "So we went up and got it in the next take." Miramax released the dubbed version of Supercop in America in 1996, at a time when major movie releases starring Asian actors were virtually non-existent. Originally made for a reported $900,000, the film went on to earn an impressive $16 million. Quentin Tarantino would later describe Supercop as containing "the greatest stunts ever filmed in any movie ever."
Yeoh's action movie skills caught the attention of James Bond franchise producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, who cast her in 1997's Pierce Brosnan-starring 007 adventure Tomorrow Never Dies. "We had such a great time filming the Bond movie," Yeoh says. "The most fun was when I was going through immigration [in the U.K.], and I said, 'I'm going to be in a Bond movie.' You can see their face change! 'You are going to be a Bond girl? Welcome to London!'" Yeoh's character, Chinese spy Colonel Wai Lin, however, was more Bond woman than girl. "The producers saw that Bond had to evolve," she says. "They thought Bond had to be very present in this time where the women are all stepping up, and the women are on equal terms in every way, and there were just no questions asked about that."
It was after Tomorrow Never Dies that director Ang Lee approached Yeoh about appearing in his historical epic and martial arts extravaganza, 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. "He started to tell me this story, and it was like someone doing a Chinese painting in front of your eyes, and the stream starts to flow, and you can see the fish swim," recalls the actress. "He said, 'I want to do a martial arts film but [like] Sense and Sensibility.' I'm like, 'I don't need to see your script, just tell me when.'"
But while shooting an action sequence early in the production, Yeoh blew out her ACL. "You know when you're in denial — you think, no, no, no, it's not happening because my knee did not swell up," Yeoh says. "But you just know because when you turn right and your knee turns left — ha ha! — it's not looking good. I went to John Hopkins [and] this specialist says, 'Well, it's not torn, it's gone.'" Yeoh required an operation and a month of rehab to fix the injury, prompting Lee to rearrange the film's schedule to accommodate her absence. "Without hesitation, Ang said, 'I'm waiting for you. Do what you need to do, and get well, and you'll come back to us.' But once I was back on set, Ang was like, 'I'm not letting you off saying that, oh, you have a bad knee so you can walk with a limp. No! You are back on set, and you are going to behave.' I'm like, 'Yes, sir!'"
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a box office sensation and critical hit, earning $213 million worldwide and ten Academy Award nominations. The film turned Yeoh into a global star, and she went on to appear in a clutch of big-budget studio movies, including 2005's Memoirs of a Geisha, and 2008's The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The actress also kept one foot firmly planted in the martial arts genre, working with legendary director Yuen Woo-ping (who had choreographed the fight sequences for both Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Matrix trilogy) on 2010's True Legend, the 2016 sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, and 2018's Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy, which costarred Dave Bautista. "What I love about working with Master Yuen, or a lot of the Asian directors, is that they are never expressive with their compliments," says Yeoh. "In America, or Europe, directors are very effusive in letting you know [after a take], 'Wow, that was so good! Okay, can we have you one more?' You go, 'That was so good, why do you need one more?' On Master Z, with Master Yuen Woo-ping, Dave Bautista said to me, 'I never understand when he thinks I've done a good job.' I said, 'When he doesn't ask you to do it again, that means you've done a good job. Walk away.'"
Still, notable movie roles for Yeoh after the Mummy sequel were few and far between. The small screen proved more welcoming, with Yeoh landing roles on the Cinemax action show Strike Back, Netflix's historical drama Marco Polo, and, finally, Star Trek: Discovery, which premiered on CBS All Access in 2017. As Captain Philippa Georgiou, Yeoh was the first Asian actor to portray a spaceship commander in the franchise since George Takei's Sulu was seen skippering the USS Excelsior in 1991's Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. ("It was a proud moment for me," she says.) Yeoh's captain was killed off in the show's premiere, but the actress later returned to the series portraying a version of her character from a mirror universe. "I kiss my writers every day," she says. "They gave me two contrasting characters, and it was delicious." In the fall of 2018, Yeoh was reportedly in talks to reprise the role of Georgiou in a spin-off show, later revealed to be titled Star Trek: Section 31. Although little concrete has been heard about the project since, Yeoh says she still hopes that the show will get off the ground: "Section 31 is that [Star Trek] universe but different. It's like Mission: Impossible meets Guardians of the Galaxy in space."
Yeoh returned to earth for her next project, director Jon Chu's 2018 film adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel Crazy Rich Asians, playing Eleanor, the elegant, intimidatingly protective mother of Henry Golding's male lead, Nick. "I remember turning the script down," she says. "I'm a big fan of Kevin Kwan's trilogy, but when the book was turned into a script, I felt the mother was too superficially mean." Yeoh's concerns were put to rest after speaking with Chu. "I asked him, 'Is Crazy Rich Asians going to be like Hangover 2?' [The] Hangover series are very successful, but that was not the kind of movie that I was looking to do. I thought it would have been such a wasted opportunity to tell these stories about these Asian families and [do] it like that. He looked at me and goes, 'Oh no. If I did that, my mother will kill me.' And then I thought, oh, okay, now we can have a conversation!"
Shortly before the release of Crazy Rich Asians, Yeoh received the script for Everything Everywhere All at Once. Even for someone with dozens of screen credits in almost every imaginable genre, Yeoh was taken aback by what she read: "I had no idea what it was all about."
Daniel Kwan was visiting the mountainous California region of Big Sur when he dreamed up the concept of people being able to move from one universe to another by performing bizarre tasks — giving themselves paper cuts, for example, or saying "I love you" to apparent enemies. "I was driving with my fiancée because we were checking out wedding venues," he says. "That long ride, going back and forth up a mountain, lulled me into a state of thinking about high-concept sci-fi ideas."
It was shortly after the release of the 2016 film Swiss Army Man, his first big-screen collaboration with Daniel Scheinert, who he had met while studying at Emerson College. The pair had made waves directing the bizarre, inventive video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon's 2013 track "Turn Down for What" but really caught the media's attention with Swiss Army Man, about a farting corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe. Several audience members walked out when the low-budget film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, but the movie was bought by A24 and grossed a respectable $5.8 million upon release.
When Kwan returned from Big Sur, he related his idea to Scheinert. "He came back and said, 'What if we did a sci-fi film, but you have to do something stupid in order to tap into the powers you have in a parallel universe?'" says Scheinert. "We were both like, that would be fun, but it's not a movie, it's just a kind of fight scene gimmick. Then, maybe a year or so later, the story started to take shape, tapping into other universes [that] would send you on an existential spiral in addition to giving you some powers. That was when we said, whoa, this is exciting; we get to do existential crisis and fight scenes. They're our two favorite things!"
Kwan mined his own experience of growing up in an immigrant family as the pair created the character of Evelyn, as well as those of her husband, daughter, and father. "My mom's side came from Taiwan, and my father's side came out of Hong Kong. They came to New York City, and they started a laundromat," he says. "Growing up, I would go visit my grandfather in the laundromat all the time. So, yes, it very much became an autobiographical movie, even though it's about the multiverse." While their script is firmly focused on the immigrant family, Scheinert believes there is a universality to its themes. "We were just excited about generational divides, and what our parents' generation went through, and what our grandparents' generation went through," he says. "Filtering that through the immigrant family just kind of heightened it. Oh, they literally speak different languages. But your mom being confused by [you], that is very relatable to a lot of people."
Kwan and Scheinert wrote the lead role with Yeoh in mind. Initially, the character was even called "Michelle." "We grew up on those Hong Kong action movies," says Scheinert. "We couldn't imagine anyone other than her playing the part, and that was very scary." Fortunately, while the actress might have been confused by the film's script, she also loved it. "There are so many universes," she says. "It was so different from anything I've read in a long time. I couldn't understand how an absurd story could just captivate me until the very end. It blew my mind. I really wanted to meet them so that they could explain to me what the heck they were thinking when they wrote it!"
The trio got together in Los Angeles to discuss the project, and Yeoh admits to testing her potential collaborators. "I would ask them questions like, 'Hot dog fingers? I don't understand this universe,'" she says. "I would bombard them with questions that I think any ordinary person would ask. They were very clear, very solid in this multiverse that they wanted to present. After the first meeting, I thought: these guys, they are evil geniuses, and I would love to work with them." Yeoh did have one condition. "She was like, 'I want to do it, but you have to change her name,'" says Scheinert. "I don't want her to be named 'Michelle.'"
Kwan and Scheinert cast legendary Big Trouble in Little China actor James Hong as Evelyn's father Gong Gong and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel actress Stephanie Hsu as her daughter Joy, whose battles with Yeoh's character — both emotional and physical — are among the film's main driving forces. "I think the Daniels' story came about [because of] the disconnection of their generation with their parents, which is my generation," says Yeoh. "Their generation is on the internet, and it's sometimes, to me, very overwhelming, things that you keep trying to understand, and most of the time, I can't make sense of it."
For Evelyn's husband Waymond, the directors made the unusual but inspired casting choice of former child actor Ke Huy Quan. Quan played Short Round in 1984's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Data in the following year's The Goonies but later struggled to find work, despite those massive hits. "Opportunities for Asian actors at that time were just few and far between," says the actor, 50. Quan attended film school at USC and embarked on a career behind the camera, helping to craft the stunts on 2000's X-Men and working as an assistant director on Wong Kar-wai's 2004 film 2046. He only decided to return to acting after witnessing the success of Crazy Rich Asians. "I called a friend, who is an agent, and said, 'Hey, would you like to rep me?' — and this is [after] two decades without an agent," he says.
"With this character, we needed someone who could do the drama, do the comedy, bilingual, maybe even trilingual, a martial artist, and then on top of that be able to be convincingly dopey and sweet," says Kwan. "A lot of people who do martial arts tend to skew in the other direction and so we struggled for a while." One day, the director was scrolling through Twitter when he came across a gif of Quan as Short Round. "I started doing the math in my head," says Kwan. "I was like, he would be the right age. What is that guy up to? He was the first person we auditioned for the role, and he became instantly our favorite. He's a sweetheart who is just full of joy, who just wants to play, who just wants to welcome you into that energy. That's the person we imagined when we were writing this role." Quan, meanwhile, was stunned to win a role opposite Yeoh: "I mean, Michelle is the reason why I [was] even thinking about getting back into acting in the first place."
Jamie Lee Curtis' participation in the film is also thanks to Yeoh. "She was the entire reason I said yes to this movie," the Halloween star explains. "You get to fight with Michelle Yeoh. Check. You get to fall in love with Michelle Yeoh. Check. You get to do a mating dance with hot dog fingers. Check!" Curtis was also quite instrumental in coming up with her IRS auditor's aggressively dowdy look. "The very first meeting we had with her, she was excited to look weird," says Scheinert. "She would just text us photos of weird outfits and weird hairdos."
Daniels shot the A24-produced film at the start of 2020 with the movie's action sequences overseen by stunt coordinator Timothy Eulich and choreographed by brothers Brian and Andy Le. The siblings are self-taught martial artists and two of the founders of the Martial Club, whose punching- and kicking-filled videos have garnered views in the tens of millions on YouTube. "The Le brothers watched our movies, all the different kinds of kung fu movies, and they taught themselves how to do it," says Yeoh. "I could not believe that they never went to the conventional [academies]. But then I said to myself, 'okay, I never studied martial arts in the conventional way, so why should I think they needed to?'" The Le brothers admit to having been in awe of the Supercop actress. "Most people in our generation kind of knew her from Crazy Rich Asians, but we knew her from all the Hong Kong movies back in the day," says Andy Le. "Working with her, literally my knees would be shaking. I guess you can call us the biggest fanboys. Whenever we had hours designated with her for rehearsals, we would just show her the general movements, or at least the general structure of the action sequences, and not much to our surprise, she would just pick them up very quickly."
These days, Yeoh is happy (well, happy-ish) to cede the stage to stunt performers for any really dangerous shots. "I am not a stunt person, per se," says the woman who, it is worth repeating, once rode a motorcycle onto a moving train for a movie. "I have to sometimes step back and say, 'Please let the professionals do their job.' I have to talk myself down." Even so, Yeoh was able to import some old-school Hong Kong action movie practices to the Daniels set. "The shocking thing with the fights was she didn't really want to rehearse," says Scheinert. "She'd practice it two or three times and then be ready. It was mind-blowing."
Stephanie Hsu, 31, was similarly impressed. "I mean, I grew up watching her," she says. "She is such an icon for so many Asian families. When I told my mother that Michelle was going to be playing my mother, everyone in my family was, like, we love Michelle Yeoh. I feel I learned so much by just being around her, and watching her work, and watching her surrender to this project. Beyond that, the amount of joy she brings everywhere she goes is just incredibly humbling."
When Yeoh watched the finished film last year, she felt both relieved and overwhelmed. "I was so nervous to watch it," she says. "I completely let loose in this film, and that's when you are the most vulnerable, when you've put yourself out there. I was prepared to cringe and cower and go, oh my God, what the hell am I doing? I laughed at it so much. I didn't see me anymore. I saw this Chinese immigrant woman who was dragged into all these different things. So I had a good laugh. And then I had a good cry."
Three decades after the release of Supercop, films with predominately Asian casts remain a rarity in U.S. cinemas. But the times do seem to be changing with the success of Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, in which Yeoh portrayed the aunt of Simu Liu's titular hero. "I don't think they are little steps anymore," says the actress. "I think they are making progress, definitely. You can see it reflected in more opportunities for Asian-Americans to have work but most important to have their stories being told. It is also our responsibility to be bringing good stories, to be telling them in the right way, and to be giving the right people the right opportunities, to help this continue to grow in a positive manner."
Kwan hopes the success of Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi have helped tee up his own movie, which also stars Jenny Slate as a complaining laundromat customer and Tallie Medel as Hsu's girlfriend, and is the opening night film at this year's SXSW Festival in Austin. "It's really exciting that we've moved beyond just telling immigrant stories, and we now can have our own genre films," he says. "I think our movie kind up blows everything up, not just the Asian-American experience. But we were really fortunate to have those movies set up our film in a nice way for the culture."
The film isn't the only place we'll be seeing many versions of Michelle Yeoh in the near future. In addition to Everything Everywhere All at Once and the possible Star Trek series, the actress plays a professor in the Paul Feig-directed YA adaptation The School for Good and Evil (out later this year) and also stars in two upcoming fantasy shows: the already-filmed The Witcher: Blood Origin and the now-in-production Disney+ series American Born Chinese. "We shot in Iceland and in England last year, and it was a magical shoot," Yeoh says of Blood Origin, which expands the universe of Netflix's The Witcher. (Says Yeoh: "I got to play an elf, and I have green eyes. I look pretty cool.") Shang-Chi filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton is directing American Born Chinese, an adaptation of the 2006 graphic novel about a teenager from an immigrant family who becomes involved in a battle between mythological Chinese gods. Yeoh's costars include Ke Huy Quan, who, like the actress, is encouraged by the kind of roles now being offered to Asian actors. "Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi made a huge impact in pushing for further Asian representation and changing Asian narratives," he says. "I'm so happy to be reunited with Michelle Yeoh [on American Born Chinese] but also to do it with other Asian actors who have been working really hard for the last ten, 20 years to push for more representation."
Finally, Yeoh will be seen as a yet-to-be-announced character in director James Cameron's Avatar sequels, the first of which will be released on Dec. 16. "It's James Cameron! Come on! I would be a tea lady for James Cameron," she says. "[I] shot for a few weeks, and I was so impressed by the work he's doing, and I can't wait to go back soon, I hope."
That's a lot of upcoming projects to add to an already impressive filmography. Scheinert jokes that one day he and Kwan will edit together a directors' cut of Everything Everywhere All at Once "where we license footage from all of her movies. And then we can make all of her work part of the extended universe."
A cinematic universe in which Michelle Yeoh really is everything everywhere all at once? We could fall hard for that.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is opening in limited theaters March 25 and will be released wide April 8.
Footage courtesy A24. Cover edit by Ethan Bellows, with design by Chuck Kerr. Video interview edited by Sam Gordon.
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