Michelle Yeoh

Wing Chun (詠春) (1994)

I was on a Crazy Rich Asians/Michelle Yeoh high when I remembered I had this gem collecting dust like nobody’s business. Yeoh takes on the decidedly working class Asian role of Yim Wing Chun, the legendary founder of the martial art named after her. The film hedges closer to slapstick comedy is about the characters more than it is about Wing Chun, but those hoping for something with a martial arts pedigree will enjoy the performance of Donnie Yen, who also serves as the action co-director.

The story goes, as they often do, that during the Qing Dynasty, there was a beautiful tofu seller who needed to defend herself against men. Wing Chun trained with Ng Mui, a Buddhist nun who developed the fighting technique, and she used the new form to keep guys with bad intentions at bay. The general legend is preserved in here, and Wing Chun is well known throughout her mountain village as a fierce fighter. She pushes back against unwanted advances and marriage proposals but also against the bandits who regularly attack and raid the village.

One day, a woman named Charmy (Catherine Hung) arrives seeking help for her sick husband. When he dies, her only option is to prostitute herself, but Wing Chun is having none of that abusive, patriarchal bullshit. She tricks one of her suitors, the cowardly Scholar Wong (Waise Lee), into paying for Charmy’s expenses, and later Wing Chun’s aunt, Abacus Fong (Kingdom Yuen), hires the young woman to work at their tofu shop. Things are rolling merrily along, save the occasional banditry, when Leung Pok-To (Donnie Yen), appears. Wing Chun’s childhood best friend, he is pleasantly surprised when he spots Charmy at the shop. His heart melts because Charmy is gorgeous, but also because he thinks she is Wing Chun.

There’s nothing like a little cross-dressing to confuse things, and mistaken identity is the source of a lot of the comedy. Wing Chun has taken to men’s attire since it suits her fighting persona and discourages ogling, but Charmy inherits her wardrobe, to the delight of the shop’s male customers and the disappointment of Pok-To, who comes to realize that the Wing Chun he knew and loved before has changed.

The film has a surprisingly strong feminist spirit, and I found this to be the most appealing aspect of the movie. Wing Chun and Abacus Fong alone make a formidable team. Although they differ in temperament, they both take charge and command respect in their own ways. Wing Chun is the first and really only person the villagers turn to when there’s an attack and in one battle, she defeats the bandits singlehandedly. Abacus Fong, meanwhile, is opinionated and blunt, earning her the disdain of men who don’t like that kind of honesty and forcefulness in a woman. However, she knows how to navigate a man’s world and does so because she can and must. Sometimes that means exploiting female sexuality, and while I don’t agree that that’s the best way to go about things, even Charmy is on board. She knows that without Wing Chun’s fighting talent or Abacus Fong’s entrepreneurial skills, she can still play the bashful, naïve Miss Soy Bean in order to sell more tofu and increase business for all three women.

The movie’s feminist appeal is reflected in the fight sequences as well. Cheng Pei-pei cameos as Wing Chun’s master, who prepares her for the final battle in the bandit’s village after they’ve captured Charmy. Now dressed in women’s clothing, she is joined by Pok-To and together they fight it out with Flying Chimpanzee (Norman Chu). Word on the internets is that there is not much actual Wing Chun in this or any of the fight scenes. I can’t tell, but I do love the tofu fight between Wing Chun and a martial arts master (Xu Xiangdong) who wants to teach this little lady a thing or two. They spar over a large block of tofu, trying to break each other but not it, and it becomes clear that the ever elegant and capable Michelle Yeoh will not suffer these fools.

English trailer:

Tofu challenge:

Released: 1994
Prod: Yuen Wo-Ping 袁和平
Dir: Yuen Wo-Ping 袁和平
Action Dir: Donnie Yen Ji-Dan 甄子丹, Yuen Shun-Yi 袁信義, Yuen Wo-Ping 袁和平
Writer: Elsa Tang Bik-Yin 鄧碧燕, Anthony Wong Wing-Fai 黃永輝
Cast: Michelle Yeoh 楊紫瓊, Donnie Yen Ji-Dan 甄子丹, Waise Lee Chi-Hung 李子雄, Kingdom Yuen King-Tan 苑瓊丹, Catherine Hung Yan 洪欣, Norman Chu Siu-Keung 徐少強, Cheng Pei-Pei 鄭佩佩, Chui A-Fai 崔亞輝, Xu Xiang-Dong 徐向東, Jin Mao-Heng 金懋恆, Guo Jia-Qing 郭家慶
Time: 100 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2018