[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a bi-weekly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
Having kicked off the third year of this monthly column with the very first Kung Fu film I watched, I wanted to do something a bit different going forward. Now that I have a personal Plex server loaded with all of my movies for streaming anywhere in the world, I’ve been able to watch a lot more of my region-coded DVDs and Blu-rays than I was able to just a few short years ago. Since I’m pretty much watching a different movie every other day, why not up the monthly column to bi-weekly?
Since I can finally watch those UK DVDs I have (damn you region-locking!), one of the first movies that caught my interest was Wing Chun. A 1994 vehicle from director Yuen Woo-ping starring the magnificent Michelle Yeoh, I put the film on with only a vague memory of how it played out and had myself a good time. Since the wacky Everything, Everywhere, All At Once is releasing this month -today, in fact!-, I figured we could have a Michelle Yeoh appreciation theme for March 2022.
So how did I end up with a DVD of Wing Chun? Shortly after my friend introduced me to Master of the Flying Guillotine, he came over to my house to share some other films he thought were cool. Two of those were on VHS and included the awkwardly titled Enter the 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Wing Chun. The former is actually the English language version of Crazy Shaolin Disciples while the latter is an all-out showcase for Woo-ping’s evolving style that sprung up in the wake of Once Upon a Time in China. There is wirework galore in this movie, but it’s helped by the fact that lead star Yeoh is just magnificent in her part.
Since the snippets of action I saw on that poorly dubbed and cropped VHS left an impression on me, I was happy to buy a DVD of the film when UK distributor Hong Kong Legends announced one in late 2004. Featuring the best picture quality you can currently find for the movie, I was able to bask in the unedited glory of this film and was happy to have it in my collection. Over the years, I’ve forgotten the general plot, but could never forget the high-flying fisticuffs that Yeoh pulls off.
What was most surprising to me upon revisiting the film is that Wing Chun is something of a sex comedy. I don’t mean that there are sex scenes or nudity or anything crass, but there are a lot of innuendos thrown into dialogue scenes since the main character is a woman. Set in 18th century China and based very loosely on the life of real-life Wing Chun practitioner Yim Wing-Chun, the film is all about breaking the gender norms of the day by having Yeoh be several steps ahead of her male opponents in most battles.
Since the men like to hoot and holler like high-school idiots, they often spout sexist comments to Wing Chun as if she will submit and marry them. This leads to an ass whooping and the battered ego of the male characters has them retreat in disgrace. One of the very first scenes in the film sort of mirrors that of one from Iron Monkey, a movie Woo-ping directed a year prior with legendary star Donnie Yen. Wing Chun sells Tofu with her family and one customer bets her that if he can grab the tofu off her serving tray, then she’ll need to be his bride.
That obviously doesn’t come to pass, but the small-scale choreography and tightly edited angles make for a close-quarter battle that rivals that of things seen in The Prodigal Son. Yeoh gets to flip, spin, and slide around the room with grace while her opponent is very heavy and unkempt in the process. The silliest moment comes when a stand-in fake leg props the tray over Yeoh’s head, but it speaks to how advanced the character is over any contemporary challengers.
What also contributes to the flair of this fight is a technique that Woo-ping would employ in many of his 90s output: undercranking. For those unaware, undercranking is when you capture footage from a camera at a slower framerate to speed up the results in the final edit. It creates an end result where characters are moving faster than real life, which can definitely be off-putting, but also emphasizes how far beyond human limitations these characters are. Iron Monkey is also famous for this and it helped propel Woo-ping to the top of the Hong Kong charts in the 90s, not to mention ended up landing him the job of fight choreographer for The Matrix in 1999.
It’s fitting that the technique would be reused in Wing Chun after making its debut in Iron Monkey as Donnie Yen is actually the co-star here. The childhood friend of Wing Chun, Yen’s Leung Pok-To returns to Wing Chun’s village so that the two may be married. He departed many years prior so that he could improve his martial arts skills and become a suitable husband to protect Wing Chun. He certainly kicks ass, but little does he know that Wing Chun has also been training in the intervening years.
The majority of his arc in the film focuses on him mistaking a pretty new tofu lady at the shop for Wing Chun with Chun not wishing to spoil his image. Despite being a martial expert, Wing Chun realizes that she doesn’t fit into the mold of what men look for in a woman. The film even starts with her father bemoaning the fact that Wing Chun has scared away all potential suitors with her talents. She often wonders if she should simply don a dress and become the stereotypical trophy wife, but then bandits burst into town and justice must be served.
That self-doubt in Wing Chun is what gives this movie an edge over many of its contemporaries. The fights are definitely unique and stylistic, but the emotional core of the plot is incredibly relatable. Many millennials feel it now, but gender norms have completely shifted and the economy has taken away our ability to start families as our parents did. Since we feel like failures on a very basic level, we often believe our differences in lifestyles are to blame for our misfortune. Wing Chun doesn’t want to correct Leung Pok-To’s image of her because, in her mind, he’s better off with the pretty girl. It’s sad as hell and makes their eventual reunion all the more powerful.
Before we get there, there are plenty of excellent fights we have to watch. Possibly the standout battle from the film is a cinematic duel on horseback during the middle of the picture. Wing Chun fights off one of the top bandits from a local bandit group surrounded by flaming logs while on a shallow pond. It’s over the top as hell but makes for stark imagery. At one point, the horse kicks a flaming log back at the dude and he winds up burning his groin. It’s ludicrous, but the behind-the-scenes details are even more fanciful.
During the filming of Wing Chun, both Woo-Ping and Yeoh were busy finalizing Tai Chi Master. Released in late November 1993 (roughly four months before Wing Chun), the two were still working on that film when it came time to shoot the horse battle. With the two deposed, Donnie Yen had to step in and figure out how to stage, frame, and edit this fight. This meant working with a body double for Yeoh and somehow getting horses to run straight into the fire. The included interview on the DVD is very insightful and makes the end result all the more impressive for how fly-by-night the production sounds. The Hong Kong film industry was truly hectic.
Even with that insanity, nothing about Wing Chun feels rushed or out of place. Hell, there’s even a scene later in the film where the indomitable Cheng Pei-Pei shows up as Wing Chun’s master. What is a clear homage to the legacy of an actress that helped solidify the (then) modern martial arts film, her presence brings the central tenet of girl power full circle just before the conclusion. She is metaphorically passing the torch to Yeoh, who had already proven herself by this point in several action films but was just on the cusp of exploding into international fame. Yeoh would go on to star as the Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies just a few years later, possibly in part to her work here.
Not every element works in Wing Chun, such as the way Wing Chun’s aunt fools a man into sleeping with her or how the villains have no real motivation, but those flaws come off as nitpicking considering the film is slightly over 90 minutes long. It’s a very briskly paced adventure that doesn’t take itself too seriously while also going out of its way to challenge the sexual politics of the day. Hong Kong cinema had never shied away from putting strong women in leading roles, but Wing Chun feels like a definitive turning point for young actresses of the day.
Pretty much everything I just wrote went over my head in high school. Not that the message was lost on me, but I never used to look too deeply into the movies I watched. Wing Chun had awesome action and that was good enough for me. It’s just nice to see that years later, the film was something of a trailblazer when it came to Kung Fu films.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.