“Half kick-ass fights, half zany bedroom farce”
Wing Chun is the name both of the school of martial arts, and the woman whom legend has it was responsible for its creation – which, in itself, is pretty cool. Tradition says Yim Wing Chun was an 18th-century figure, to whom a warlord proposed (rather forcefully, one imagines) marriage: she developed the style and used it to beat him, thereby escaping wedlock. This movie is a very loose depiction of her life: Yim and her wily but unloved sister, Abacus Fong (Yuen) run a tofu shop in a town plagued by raids from local bandits. Yim rescues a beautiful woman, Charmy (Catherine Hung) from them, and Charmy’s allure brings crowds of customers – well, at least male ones – to the store. Yim’s former sweetheart, Leung Pok To (Yen) shows up, determined to woo her again, but mistakes Charmy for Yim. Meanwhile, bandit leader Flying Chimpanzee (Chu) has had enough of Yim humiliating his men, and kidnaps Charmy to lure the martial arts mistress into their fortress.
You’ve got Yeoh, the greatest kung-fu actress of all time, in my opinion. You’ve got Yen, who’s the greatest kung-fu actor of the modern era, in my opinion (Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan in his prime, might be slightly better). You’ve got veteran Cheng Pei Pei, who’d find fame five years later in Crouching Tiger, as Yim’s teacher. And you’ve got Yuen, the greatest kung-fu director – I’m not even going with “in my opinion” on that one. So, why isn’t this a solid gold, five-star classic? Simply because, while the fights are awesome, the stuff between the fights is nearer to awful, focusing far too heavily on slapstick of the British, “Whoops! Where are my trousers?” comedy school. Not, I should stress that I’m averse to that per se: it just isn’t what I want in my action movies. Here, people leap in and out of bedroom windows, fall over themselves at Fong’s “stinky tofu” breath, and repeatedly, somehow manage to mistake Yeoh for a man. None of this is the slightest bit interesting, and it’s even less amusing.
Indeed, it’s a tribute to how good the battles are, that I was prepared to endure comedic stylings apparently crafted by an unsophisticated eight-year-old, to get to the next confrontation. Take your pick of which is best. The one on the docks? The battle over a tray of tofu? The encounter in an inferno? We haven’t even mentioned Yim vs. Flying Chimpanzee, which is the duel so good, they had to do it twice [and I was impressed Yeoh retained her position at the heart of the movie, not stepping aside to make way for Yen]. Without exception, these are all imaginative, inventive, varied, fluidly shot and edited: practically a master-class on how fight sequences should be filmed. The trailer below – which wisely removes just about everything else apart from the martial arts – will give you some idea. It’s just a shame their grace and beauty isn’t in the service of anything more memorable than dumb humour.
Dir: Yuen Wo Ping
Star: Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Kingdom Yuen, Norman Chu