Saturday popcorn theater: “Wing Chun” (1994)
11 September 2011
Place: a small village, where a small circus is performing its feats for the village beach festival with fire-breathers, stilt-walkers, and acrobats. Story opening: a foolish scholar named Wong Hok Chow and his servant arrive to get a glimpse of the famous martial arts master Yim Wing Chun (Michelle Yeoh), whose skills protect her greedy aunt’s tofu making business. The scholar wants to hire Wing Chun to protect his fortune against bandits, but when he gets a glimpse of her — “She dresses like a man, but she is still impressive!” — he has a better idea: if he marries her, she’ll protect him for free. He rubs his chin comically. Oh, he has so much to learn.
Because this is Saturday Popcorn Theater, and because Yuen Woo-ping’s Wing Chun is a comedic martial arts film so classic that the frames almost seem sped-up like old silent film, the bandits arrive immediately. Within five minutes Wing Chun has beaten them off by using Wong’s body like a puppet in what you first might think is the best martial arts sequence ever. But there’s more!
“Master, women who fight are no good even if they are beautiful,” Wong’s servant warns him. Ultimately this film asks no more serious questions than, will Wing Chun take this absurd scholar seriously as a suitor? Can a kick-ass martial arts woman find a man worthy of her? Will that worthy man be attracted to a woman who can kick his ass, or will he fall for the beautiful girly-girl? And, of course: will the bandits get it in the end? But the real question is, is Wing Chun so good that she can protect her cake of tofu while kicking a man’s ass?
To be serious for only a moment, Wing Chun is also the name of a Chinese style of martial arts that springs from a 19th-century legend about a young woman who refuses to marry a local warlord. He insists that the only way she can escape marriage is to beat him in a martial arts faceoff. Distressed, Wing Chun begs a local nun to teach her to fight. Curiously, the nun had observed a confrontation between a snake and a crane that led her to theorize about a new method of hand-to-hand combat. She teaches Wing Chun, who triumphs over the warlord using this new style.
And to stop being serious, I beg you: waste no time on history or the important questions posed by this film. Instead, sit down and watch this 95-minute feminist masterpiece and find out how it ends for yourself. Sadly, it’s been removed from YouTube but you might trawl the internet for new versions appearing regularly. Here’s the great tofu scene: