Wing Chun

In WING CHUN, the 1994 Yuen Woo-Ping classic, the great Michelle Yeoh plays Yim Wing Chun, a legendary character who was supposedly the first disciple of the Shaolin nun who invented the Wing Chun style of kung fu after seeing a crane fight a snake. The movie’s not about that, but it’s a reworking of a famous story about Wing Chun using her skills to ward off an asshole trying to force her to marry him. I’m not sure, but I think it’s kind of like in western culture if you do a new version of Zorro, Dracula, Hansel and Gretel or whatever you’re probly not gonna directly adapt the version people know, you’re gonna try to take the famous elements and put a different spin or twist or perspective on them.

Woo-Ping’s joyously gravity-defying kung fu choreography is woven through a sort of romantic comedy about a couple of male suitors and the women who work at Wing Chun’s tofu shop. Wing Chun is very close with her materialistic Aunt, Abacus Fong (Kingdom Yuen, A CHINESE TORTURE CHAMBER STORY), supposedly a grouchy old lady who men find unappealing and compare to stinky tofu, though Yuen is attractive and the same age as Yeoh. Charmy (Catherine Hung, GHOST HOUSE) is a young widow who Wing Chun bought at an auction to rescue her from forced marriage – she now works as “Miss Soya Bean Cube,” the hot girl at the window selling the tofu, which causes a daily mob scene of horny men fighting over the chance to order next and get her to reach onto high shelves so they can ogle her body.

It’s a role that Wing Chun used to perform – Charmy even wears her old outfit – and she’s clearly a little sad that she thinks she can’t do it anymore. She’s older and wears male clothes and, according to her aunt, should try to hide how strong she is from doing kung fu.

The two men who seem to have a legitimate shot at Charmy’s heart are Scholar Wong (Waise Lee, A BETTER TOMORROW, BULLET IN THE HEAD) who’s a doofus but not exactly a villain, and Leung Pok-To (Donnie Yen, not long after IRON MONKEY). We would be rooting for Charmy to choose Pok-To just because he’s Donnie Yen, except we know that her Miss Soya Bean Cube getup has caused him to mistake her for Wing Chun, who he was childhood friends with. There are alot of mixups that seem like they should be easier to clear up, but some of it was hard for me to follow – like too many ’90s Hong Kong classics I had to see it on an old, out-of-print DVD with poorly translated subtitles.

But I was able to figure out that “soya bean cube” means tofu. And another part I did understand is when Auntie Fong tricks Scholar Wong into having sex with her in the dark, believing she’s Charmy. A gender-reversed REVENGE OF THE NERDS rape! But in this culture it means they have to get married now.

Wing Chun stays above that particular fray. She doesn’t reveal herself to Pok-To, seeming to think she can never fall in love. There are some lesbian implications (I think) when Charmy tickles the other women’s feet to (I think) explain to them what an orgasm feels like. (Oh shit, this is Tarantino’s favorite scene I bet.) There’s also a turn where Pok-To thinks Charmy, who he thinks is Wing Chun, is already in love because he sees the actual Wing Chun wipe sweat off her brow. I thought it was kind of progressive because I didn’t understand until reading about the movie afterwards that he’s supposed to believe the real Wing Chun, because she’s wearing male clothes, is a man.

For the most part the gender politics are better than in some of the female driven Hong Kong action of the era like SHE SHOOTS STRAIGHT, because dumb sexism is Woo-Ping’s main target. This is a timeless depiction of pathetic men who object to women being “too ambitious” and are outraged that Wing Chun is powerful. The masters don’t want her to help when bandits attack a wedding, and then they totally blow it, so she fights off the attackers using a stolen sword, playfully whacks them with the blunt end instead of chopping them up, flips onto a raft and then again onto a horse and chases them down, shit those old farts could never dream of doing. And later when she comes into town, instead of saying, “You’re right, we’re fucking idiots, we should’ve let you just do it in the first place, you were clearly much more capable than our dumb asses, and we’re sorry that we’ve so far not shown a capacity to grow beyond the bullshit attitudes we were raised with,” they explain that they “invited the magnificent pugilist Master Wong to give you a lesson.” And he’s just the chauvinist for the job.

She summarily and deservingly humiliates the dumb motherfucker (Xiang Dong Xu, TAI CHI II, 14 BLADES, DRAGON BLADE) in a classic challenge where all he would have to do is smash her tray of tofu, but she throws it around and knocks the table out from under it and balances it on her foot and forces him to surrender and have his friends carry him home.

If you read my Patreon-exclusive TWILIGHT review series you’ve seen me go on about my love of tofu and my amusement at a current right wing fascination with soy eating as an insult (apparently based on a combination of sexism or machismo and paranoia about soy’s effects on estrogen production). I hadn’t seen WING CHUN so I didn’t know she was a tofu maker. I guess we have here a real connection between soy and femininity, and I’m glad to have a movie that celebrates my pro-woman, pro kung fu, pro delicious foods agenda. So far this is the best tofu-related movie scene I’m aware of, but I’d welcome other nominations.

While all the regular guys in town line up to have their tofu served to them by the new Miss Soya Bean Cube, all the warriors line up to get their balls served to them by the old one. When the bandit Flying Monkey (Chui Ah-Fai, assistant stunt coordinator, TAI CHI II) hears that Wing Chun saved Charmy from forced marriage he makes a big speech about justice and goes and, uh, tries to steal Charmy’s panties. And gets beat up by Wing Chun.

Even male lead Pok-To, when he peeps in the window and stupidly thinks Charmy (who he still thinks is Wing Chun) is about to get it on with Wing Chun (who he still thinks is a man), starts yelling for her to come out and calling her a bitch. Unacceptable. Luckily he seems to realize his error and cools his jets for the rest of the movie, even waiting outside while she goes and takes care of the two major fights of the last act.

Scholar Wong at least recognizes her awesomeness. Before he gets hung up on Charmy his plan is to marry Wing Chun so that he can have her protect his village without having to pay her. And he benefits from her modesty in an incident where she fights off bandits while sitting in a chair and puppeteering him with sticks so it’s technically his fists beating them up. And he gets credit for it.

There’s plenty of story going on, but not enough to get in the way. In another amazing scene, Flying Monkey ambushes Wing Chun and they have an ax fight on horseback in front of a burning fence. As you do.

Flying Monkey spins around on his horse like it’s one of the pommel variety. Wing Chun defeats him with an incredible move – he takes a flying leap at her and she runs at him with a spear. It looks like she’s gonna impale him, but instead she rams the spear through burning wood, which launches a flaming projectile right into his crotch.

Beautiful! And ultimately crucial to the narrative. Flying Monkey’s brother, the bandit leader Flying Chimpanzee (Norman Chu, THE FLYING GUILLOTINE, THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN, TIGER ON BEAT) laughs at his dick injury and makes fun of him until Flying Monkey says it was done by “Yim Wing Chun, she’s a woman.”

Flying Chimpanzee’s smile melts away. He was amused by his brother being literally emasculated, but figuratively? By a woman? He turns very serious and says, “Okay! I’ll help you to take revenge.” He heads out with an army of dozens and kidnaps Charmy as bait to lure Wing Chun to their fortress. The most disturbing thing in the movie is when the bandits discuss forcing her to marry Flying Monkey, but…

…so other offer to violate her for him. Luckily Flying Chimpanzee at least has enough honor to put a stop to that shit.

And then Wing Chun arrives. For their first challenge, Flying Chimpanzee says if she loses she has to be his wife. To win she has to be able pull the “champion spear” out of a wall. If you know what I mean. Because this is a Woo-ping joint they end up fighting while nimbly balancing on top of the spear. When she wins she does a cool pose with it, but what use does she have for a stupid “champion spear”? She throws it back like a home team throwing back the visiting team’s home run ball. I love that shit.

For what Flying Chimpanzee considers his second challenge and Wing Chun considers his second lesson, they have a straight up weapons duel. In a biting callback to that dipshit pugilist saying women are only good for having babies, she declares that if he loses he has to call her “Mom.” I love that she keeps taunting him by calling him “my good boy.”

He chooses the giant spear as his weapon and keeps talking about it being longer than her swords (again, if you know what I mean). No problem – she leads him into a small cabin where his giant metaphorical wang keeps getting stuck in the walls and ceiling. After she’s defeated him he really does learn a lesson, because when Flying Monkey tries (and fails) to jump her, Chimpanzee grabs him, says “You’re an asshole!” and tells him to say he’s sorry to “Mom.” They declare her “Mother of Thieves” and her motherly response is, “It’s not necessary. Don’t be thieves anymore!”

The only time I felt Woo-Ping let me down was at the very end. The whole movie glorifies Wing Chun’s excellence and ability to make chumps of everyone who tries to diminish her. And she and her aunt are cool partly because they seem to reject society’s expectations for them as women. During the foot tickling scene Charmy even makes a speech about how Wing Chun is a heroine and Auntie Fong is good at business but she’s useless because all she learned how to do was be a wife, and now her husband is dead. I mean, I don’t think Charmy is useless, but this is good praise of Fong and Wing Chun for following their own paths.

For the finale Wing Chun dresses more womanly, and realizes how to use a symbolically more feminine approach to fighting to defeat Flying Chimpanzee. I like this because it’s womanly power, not just imitating male power. The bummer part is that her master, the great Shaolin nun Abbess Ng Mui (Cheng Pei-pei, LADY OF STEEL, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON), gives her permission – in fact, direction – to get married. “No matter how strong you are, you still have to settle down. Wing Chun, go and get married!” Which is fine, I’m all for people who want to be married to get married, but I wish she wasn’t so thrilled, like it was the thing she was waiting for to make herself whole. It kinda feels like if a Batman movie ended with him getting married and not being Batman anymore – good for Bruce Wayne, but terrible way to end the story. And she’s so thoroughly compromised by this idea of a happy ending that before her wedding she says, “Charmy, you should settle down too.” And Auntie Fong claims that since she got married “I am more beautiful and I talk sweeter.” It’s some bullshit.

But until then it’s nearly perfect. Just turn it off a minute or two early. This is one of the greats. Take a look at this one, Criterion.

Apparently the fighting in this is not actually Wing Chun. Yen, of course, later learned the style to star in IP MAN. WING CHUN was Woo-Ping’s second time working with Yeoh, after TAI-CHI MASTER (1993). He later choreographed her in CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON (2000) and FEARLESS (2006) (international cut only), and directed her in TRUE LEGEND (2010), CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY (2016) (also with Yen), and the IP MAN 3 spin-off MASTER Z: IP MAN LEGACY, which opens this Friday.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 9th, 2019 at 12:24 pm and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

10 Responses to “Wing Chun”

  1. Fucking love this movie. I think this was the second thing I ever saw Michelle Yeoh in, after SUPERCOP. A good friend of mine was huge into kung fu movies in college, so we spent basically a year straight chewing through as many as he could download, and I remember this was towards the beginning of the run (he’d later take a quarter-long course on kung fu movies and complain that he’d already seen all the selections). The whole thing about “stinky tofu” really stuck in my mind as, like, the grossest possible way to refer to a vagina and it was the first thing I thought of when I saw the review.

    As far as other tofu-based movie scenes, I’m really partial to the super-weird scene in SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE where the guy tries to give Lady Vengeance tofu in order to get her right with Jesus.

  2. The one things Hong Kong cinema had was how they would have women led action movies. Sure they weren’t always the most progressive with how men treated women but they still had women leads.

  3. Now we’re talking!! A hilarious Vern review of one of my favorite Hong Kong movies. This is right up there among the best of the genre for me, probably just under Iron Monkey. And like Iron Monkey this is a completely satisfying kung-fu film that is also super accessible to genre newbies. Somehow in my zillion times watching this I missed that it’s also a Yuen Woo-Ping joint!

    Vern, there are so many classic scenes and great characters in this, and your writeup captures them all. I love Flying Chimpanzee and how he first switches from laughing at his brother to outrage he was beaten by a woman, then after the fight with Michele Yeoh he switches just as fast to obedience. Just like he promised. So great!

    To sum up, Michele Yeoh is a total badass and this is a great movie. I can’t think of another tofu-based HK action comedy, but I’ll work on it. Iron Monkey has an amazing scene of the protagonists bonding through cookery, but no tofu as I recall, just shaved noodles and daredevil stir-frying…

  4. Yeah, the characters do the stances, and there’s the sequence with the iconic practice dummy, but the choreography is mostly a Yuen clan invention. I had to look up that MASTER Z movie. Dave Bautista’s in it? He needs a better publicist or something.

  5. Everybody have fun tonight! Everybody WING CHUN tonight!

  6. When I saw the review, the first thing I thought of was also the “stinky tofu” insult. You’ve got to hand it to them. It’s memorable, at least. The second thing I thought of was the scene when Aunt Fong rapes that dude. I guess that was acceptable in the nineties.

    But, yeah, this movie is a lot of fun. And Michelle Yeoh must be one of the most versatile actresses of all time. She can do pretty much anything. I know she’s recognized as a major talent, but I still feel we don’t talk enough about how incredibly talented she is.

  7. Whomever was talking about the tofu in Lady Vengeance… White tofu is considered “pure” so she’s pure if she eats the tofu.

  8. I used to live there. I live in Beijing now and I learned last night that word for “beautiful” is “pianliang” which means “bleach” and “light”. Those were the old standards of beauty (you have skin like white paper) but it is still literally the meaning of the word that means beauty.

  9. …that the word for…

  10. so I saw Master Z just the other day at my local international film festival (ah, the benefits of living in a real city).

    Its a darn good time. The dramatic parts are clunky, but I found them charming as hell. There’s tons of fights of course, but with rare exception none of them get too crazy or long. They follow the Ip Man formula of being mostly grounded, somewhat brief and hard-hitting. A lot of the acting ain’t great either but once again it was for me part of the charm. Yeoh actually gets to give the best performance in the film by far despite having maybe the fifth most screen time, and her fight scene made me lament how absent she’s been from the action scene for the last few decades.

    as Yuen Woo-Ping is now well into his seventies I tend to value more and more every one of his projects. Master Z isn’t on par with his best, but its still a wholly satisfying contemporary action film, and we don’t get enough of those these days for me to pooh pooh it just because its not an instant classic.

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