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.