While murder is not unknown in martial arts films, it is not synonymous with (or the ultimate aim of) the violence in the films’ narratives and spectacles. Skill and virtue—including the all-important virtues of diligence and humility in the practice of one’s kungfu skills—are traditionally what will triumph, for the goal of perfecting martial arts skills is to become simultaneously superior in terms of justice, mercy, understanding, and the ability to teach the benighted world (as the Buddha did upon his return from ultimate enlightenment). Violence thematically serves a higher purpose, vanquishing the truly murderous who are trapped within a hellish world of their own fears and jealousies.
The three women in Yuen Po-wing’s Wing Chun—a small but expansive film—are self-defined as well as mutually supportive. Yim Wing-chun is perhaps the ideal portrait, but both Fong and Charmy strike me as equally progressive for, even though they live in a society that is not kind to women (to say the least), they manage to be true to their yearnings and consciences. Despite the film’s humble special effects, the women in Wing Chun soar high; they manage to be more elevated precisely because they are so much more grounded. By its obvious esteem for the three female protagonists, Yuen’s film insists that there are many kinds of femininities. In contrast, the fighting women in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are entirely desperate, two of them lacking the humility required to defuse the ego-wielding evil-doers of the world. If this makes them more contemporary, it is at the cost not only of tradition but also of depth: they come off as shallow (Jade Fox) or immature (Jen) characters controlled entirely by what they do not have—by their lack. In the end, they are shrill, distraught, desperate. Whereas Lee’s fighting women are the dragon, the fox, and the lotus who fetishize the master’s weapons—his sword (of “luck and destiny”) and his words (the Wudang manual)—Yuen’s fighting heroines, named after and known by their own cultivated abilities (Abacus/Stinky-mouthed Fong, Charmy, and Wing-chun), are the producers of discourse and creators of destinies.
Wing Chun cost a fraction of the budget and made a fraction of the box – office intake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but in my view the portrait of the fighting woman is eminently more conducive to feminist pleasure in Yuen’s casual comedy than in Lee’s solemnly gender-focused film. In part this is facilitated by the more quotidian nature of the problems faced by the women in the smaller film as opposed to the aristocratic anxieties of Jen and the almost mythically evil responses of Jade Fox to all and everything in the bigger film. Whereas Shulien, Jen, and Fox’s machinations take them away from home and community on flights more splendid and exhilarating, Wing-chun’s flight originates from, and is grounded in, her community. Yim Wing-chun fights by first cooperating with her opponent’s strength before sending it back through him, and even though she steadfastly declines the conventions of femininity, she does not reject or forfeit womanhood. It is this universe of opposites that gives Wing Chun a charm and a feminist philosophy sadly absent from the visually stunning but ideologically conservative Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.