Monday, February 6, 2012

Wing Chun - Fighting for Honor... with Deadly Class

Cover of the 1994 Wing-Chun

Ok. Just to prove that "Punch in the Neck" isn't ENTIRELY about great looking, muscle bound dudes punching and kicking the daylights out of each other, and because we got you so lathered up last week with punching, blood, guns, and 'splosions of "Flash Point", we're going to pull it back a tick and let you all cool off a bit.

This week, we're going to cover the classic movie "Wing Chun" (1994), starring Michelle Yeoh Choo-Kheng and, you guessed it, Donnie Yen.

Written and filmed before the groundbreaking film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", which also starred Ms. Yeoh, this film  appears in the traditional, old school Kung Fu movie style. A great story, presented a bit hokey with bits of comedy and over-emphasized punching and kicking noises, yet still a great historical film none-the-less.

I think it is important to note, before we get too far, that this movie is considered to be quite controversial amongst film buffs, cultural traditionalists, and Wing Chun purists as each group finds themselves conflicted over the depiction of a strong woman (Yim Wing-Chun) who needs no man, who was an important character in Chinese Martial Arts history, and who is presented with comedy bits sprinkled here and there throughout the film. However, I think it is also important to point out the rarity of a female led story such as this one, made prior to the year 2000. Essentially, between cultural standards and genre style, this is all you could get. So, I salute you Ms. Yeoh for your work in this movie!

HISTORICAL NUGGET (short version):
Yim Wing-Chun
Yim Wing-Chun is a legendary Chinese character dating back to roughly the late 1600's-1700's. She was the daughter of a Tofu merchant who was being harassed and forced into marriage by a warlord of the area. The Shaolin abbess Ng Mui, believed to be one of the five founding Shaolin Elders, taught Yim Wing-Chun a martial arts style that was inspired by a fight between a snake and a crane, so that she could protect herself and ward off unwanted advances. Over her lifetime, she and her husband Leung Bokk-Chao developed the martial arts style we know today as Wing Chun. It has been studied by many through the years, including the original Yip Man, Bruce Lee, and yes... Donnie Yen having played Yip Man in IP Man 1 & 2.

... And it is upon this brief history that our story is written and played out.

Wing-Chun is a little bit of a trick to talk about, because you REALLY need to know that background of the story in order to fully “get” what is going on. As was briefly stated, Yim Wing Chun is a famous historical figure in Chinese Kung Fu history. She was trained by a Shaolin abbess and is the founder of the Wing Chun style of Kung Fu. Because she has been told that if she chose to learn Kung Fu in order to get out of an unwanted marriage “proposal”, then she would have to accept that she un-marriable (if that is even a word) and live the life of a spinster.

K. Tuck that nugget of information away for later.

Yim Wing-Chun (left) and Tofu Mouth Auntie (right)
Our story opens with Yim Wing-Chun returning home to celebrate the marriage of her younger sister. Yim Wing-Chun is portrayed as a rather “manly” looking woman, mostly due to the clothes she wears and how her hair is simply pulled back and braided in the style of men from that time. What we adore about Yeoh’s performance here is that she really has adopted the “I don’t care” or “que sera, sera” type of attitude, which is entirely consistent with how the character Yim Wing-Chun must have felt, knowing that she didn't need a man to support or protect her. 
Now, this doesn't translate into her being unfeeling or independent to a fault, as she and her foul mouthed Aunt (a constant and hilarious companion throughout the film) rescue a young widow who has essentially put herself up for public auction to pay for her husband’s burial. The young widow, Charmy (that name for some reason irritates the hell out of me) is brought home, dressed up and taught by Auntie, in the most incredibly ridiculous of ways, as to how to properly sell tofu in the family tofu shop.

Charmy the Tofu Girl
Just as every man in town is noticing and falling over the disgustingly sweet Charmy, along comes the man himself, Donnie Yen, in a fantastically rare comical performance. Now, this man honestly knows his Kung Fu, so don’t get us wrong here as his character Leung Pok-to has been away studying his art for many years, but due to his anxiety over reuniting with his childhood sweetheart Yim Wing Chun, he becomes an exercise in farce. 

Pok-to sees Charmy hocking her tofu and mistakes her for Yim Wing-Chun, falling head over heels at the sight of her and double fisting the bean curd in an attempt to impress this lovely lady.  Then when Wing Chun shows up, Pok-to mistakes her for a man… and then thinks she and Charmy are involved… and oh the irony!

And then... enter the bad guy, Flying Monkey. He is the leader of the infamous “bandits” that we keep hearing about throughout the movie. Flying Monkey started the shiznit at the beginning of the movie by trying to kidnap Charmy (shudder), but was in the end disgraced by our heroine. He of course shouted his intent to seek revenge, which is what is now taking place. Pok-to (Yen) happens upon the scene and joins the fight for the honor of his love, which isn't his love, but he doesn't know that. Flying Monkey manages to escape and make a run for it... but then Pok-to's fist manages to breach a wall and nab the “bad guy”. Of course, this is only possible because, as we have previously determined, Donnie Yen's fists are so awesome that they are able to accurately triangulate the position of Flying Monkey and thus nab him for a right proper beat down. 

It is shortly thereafter that there is a “lovers” setup by the Aunt, and peculiar footbath scene, the admission by Charmy that she is a pretty but useless sack of flesh, unlike Yim Wing-Chun, a tofu fight scene, the accusation by Pok-to to Charmy/Wing-Chun/Man/??? of there being an unchaste love affair going on, and then the eventual kidnapping of Charmy and the challenge to Yim Wing-Chun by Flying Monkey's older brother Flying Chimpanzee. (Insert question regarding the names of the rest of their family)

Yes you are... No I'm not... Yes you are.. No I'm not...
Fast forward to Yim Wing-Chun heading out to the “bandit hideaway” to meet Flying Chimpanzee face to face, and Pok-to chasing after her as backup. It is here, along the banks of the river, underneath the gentle glow of flaming torches and a campfire that he discovers that this “man” he has been angry with is really his childhood love. Yim Wing-Chun. Insert an identity argument between Wing-Chun and Pok-to (see, cause she deeply loves him and wants to get married to him but is conflicted over Charmy, and... and... and...), cue Pok-to puking up blood from the beat down he previously received.

Wing-Chun shows up for the fight, delivers an impressive beat down, and begins to collect both Charmy and Pok-to. But... no, no, no. Flying Chimpanzee isn't willing to accept the beatdown. He re-schedules another match. Wing-Chun accepts, and then shortly thereafter starts puking up blood. (There must have been a significant blood puke budget here) Realizing that she will lose her next match, and will therefore be forced to marry Flying Chimpanzee, she returns to the feet of her master Ng Mui. It is here that she somehow deciphers that smashing a sleeve full of walnuts means to punch Flying Chimpanzee in the gut to thus disable his “Cotton Belly” technique.
Yim Wing-Chun kicks butt, all the men are required to call her “mother” (I'm sure there is a Chinese cultural joke in there), and she and Pok-to get married.

Roll Credits.

  All in all, not an earth shattering movie, but a FUN movie none-the-less. Honestly, you really have to look at the whole picture here. 1) Wing Chun, in comparison with the rest of the characters in the film, is a very level-headed and strong person. When you stand her up against the rest of these silly people, she’s incredible! 2) It’s a HK comedy for Pete’s sake. Give the people some credit. 3) I feel like this film portrays Wing Chun as more of a legend than an actual person. You know all those legends and tall tales passed down through generations that are half based in truth and half utterly unbelievable? I walked away from this movie feeling like Wing Chun was a legend, and anyone that great has to pass into legend status at some point, right?
Lastly, this movie is entirely carried by Michelle Yoeh and her incredible athleticism. And, if for nothing else, it is amazing to see a strong, skilled, leading role given to a woman with some SERIOUS talent. Perhaps had it not been for her participation in this film, she would have NEVER landed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I dunno.

In short, you have to see the movie for the excellent fighting and minor storyline, despite possible inaccuracies, appreciate that they put a woman in a starring role in any HK film, and buy right into the goofiness.  And then you’ll have a grand old time.

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