Wing Chun is a particular style of Chinese hand-to-hand combat, traditionally thought to have been developed by (and named for) a woman who used it to get out of an arranged marriage with a cruel man. Yuen Wo Ping's 1993 movie Wing Chun takes place after all that, continuing Wing Chun's story past the traditional tale.
Scholar Wong (perennial Hong Kong movie bad guy Waise Lee, doing a comic turn for once) comes to town looking for Yim Wing Chun (Michelle Yeoh), intent on hiring her to protect his home from the local bandits. But once he sees her, he decides it might be easier to marry her. That way he wouldn't have to pay her, just feed her.
His plan hits a snag when the bandits show up where the meeting is taking place. Rather than lose face in front of a prospective wife, Wong challenges the bandits to a fight, even though they will certainly kill him. Luckily for him, Wing Chun comes to his rescue. Unluckily for him, Wing Chun comes to his rescue while staying seated on a stool, manipulating Wong's body with a stick to make him fight the bandits. Thus begins a long string of jokes in which Wing Chun emasculates men by besting them in martial arts combat, often with no apparent effort.
Wing Chun wields a flaming log.
Nothing phallic here.
The next day brings the beach festival. Wing Chun and her money-hungry aunt "Abacus" Fong (Yuen King-Tan) attend, where they meet up with Wing Chun's father. It seems that Wing Chun's little sister is about to get married, but the matchmaker runs away when she sees Wing Chun coming. Abacus Fong, meanwhile, has no husband because of her bad breath and sharp tongue. And during the festival a third available woman shows up, the beautiful Charmy (Catherine Hung Yan). Charmy's husband is deathly ill, and she hopes that the festival's holy water will be able to help him. But then the bandits attack and Charmy is kidnapped. The men of the town vow to get her back, but the bandits beat them as if they were the Cincinnati Bengals on a Sunday. Then Wing Chun enters the fray and easily defeats the interloper, rescuing Charmy.
The next day the bandits show up at Abacus' tofu shop looking for Wing Chun. In the kind of challenge that only occurs in martial arts movies and Ranma cartoons, our heroine asserts that if the bandits' leader can break a slab of tofu while she is defending it, she will acknowledge his kung fu as superior. Wing Chun wins of course, but only after breaking numerous laws of motion and inertia. Still, it's all good moviemaking, and suspension of disbelief is not nearly so important as the suspension of props and people on wires. The sequence is reminiscent of the calligraphy fight in Magnificent Butcher, which was also directed by Yuen Wo Ping. Wing Chun is a bit of a throwback for Yuen, and there are also some gags reprised from Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle's Shadow.
Meanwhile, Charmy's husband has died. She doesn't have the money to pay for his funeral, so she tries to sell herself into indentured servitude. Luckily (an adverb you'll hear often in any synopsis of this film), Wing Chun hears of her plight -- as if anyone in the village could not hear of the goings-on in the town square -- and convinces Aunt Abacus to buy Charmy (with the help of Scholar Wong, who has come to town to continue his pursuit of Wing Chun) for the tofu shop. The theory is that having a beautiful woman around will help sales. Only in China... or anywhere else on the planet Earth.
Donnie Yen acts out
Rupert Homes' Timothy.
With this many women in the plot, a male character is needed to balance things out a bit. Like many martial arts films, Wing Chun is, at heart, a love story. Enter Leung Pok To (Donnie Yen), a ranking official who knew Wing Chun as a child. He has come back to town to renew the acquaintance and perhaps begin a courtship. But because Chinese cinematic laws mandate a mistaken identity subplot, Leung mistakes Charmy for Wing Chun, and mistakes Wing Chun for Charmy's husband! Presumably this is because Wing Chun dresses in male clothes, but mistaking Michelle Yeoh for a man is like mistaking Marlene Dietrich for a man in Morocco's nightclub scene.
At the same time the bandits decide that Charmy is their property. The gang's second fortress lord, Flying Monkey, challenges Wing Chun to a fight. Wing Chun accepts and the two duel on horseback among a field of burning logs. Things go badly for Flying Monkey, who takes a flaming brand to a certain part of his body... let's just say he won't be spanking himself anymore.
Waise Lee just found out he's
going to be starrng in a movie with
Jean Claude Van Damme.
Enraged by this, Flying Monkey's big brother, Flying Chimpanzee (Norman Chu) challenges Wing Chun to a grudge match. Besides the added advantage of being monstrously strong (he wields a spear so massive that it must be carried by four of his subordinates), Chimp has the "cotton belly," a bizarre ability that allows him to suck in his opponents limbs after they hit him! In order to defeat this formidable opponent Wing Chun will have to... rediscover her femininity?
Most of Wing Chun's character rests within Michelle Yeoh's slight smile and perpetually amused countenance. It's difficult to think of another Chinese actress who could have carried off the character of Wing Chun at all, and Yeoh does it with the same confidence that allowed her to get the better of James Bond in one of his own movies without inviting the scorn of the audience. There's no doubt about it: the woman has charm, as she displays in a quiet scene shortly after Wing Chun's true identity is revealed to childhood friend Leung. Yeoh is equally at home in a tender bedroom scene and hanging from wires forty feet in the air during combat -- and the world of Chinese cinema is richer for it. (Now, hanging from wires forty feet above a bedroom scene -- that would be something else altogether.)
No one that cute would
kick a guy's butt, right?
Wing Chun does have a complicated plot. A lot of the antics between the various main characters without simian names (we didn't even touch on most of it our plot synopsis) seems to be inspired by Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. But the movie as a whole is made simpler by the easy humor of some scenes and impressive acrobatics of others. Old gags (including the tired mistaken-identity subplot) are made new again with clever twists of coincidence. Martial arts movie aficionados will find that spark of excitement again with some of the beautifully choreographed and photographed action sequences, into which the story has imparted a feeling of urgency that is often missing in chop-socky flicks. A last minute turn into mystic philosophy (included only, it seems, to allow Cheng Pei Pei to make a cameo as Wing Chun's teacher) is quickly brushed aside by the climactic moments of ultimate ass-kicking. Discovering a movie like Wing Chun is like discovering one last present under the Christmas tree an hour after you thought the last gift was unwrapped.