Wing Chun (1994, dir. Yuen Wo-ping)
Wing Chun is a style of kungfu that is only a few generations old; its historical record is well, if variously, documented. A popular version has it that, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when oppression and cruelty were a daily norm, abbess Ng Mui from the Shaolin Temple was forced in 1674 to take refuge in the White Crane Temple on Mount Tai Leung after Emperor Kangshi had the Shaolin burnt to the ground. There she met Yim Wing-chun, the daughter of a tofu (bean curd) merchant, who was being harassed by a local bully. Taking pity on the young woman, the abbess taught her how to best an opponent who is larger and stronger—by borrowing his energy (redirecting his strength and brute force) to use against him, by positioning herself for close-range combat so that the far-reaching limbs of the taller and larger opponent are rendered useless, and by being calm, precise, and efficient in her movements. Yim Wing-chun successfully discouraged the bully from bothering her again, but she continued to practise and to refine her techniques, which she later taught to her husband Leung Pok-to and others so that they might defend themselves against intimidation and persecution by the corrupt Qing government.
Around this historical core, director Yuen Wo-ping grows a very odd apple by adding elements of low comedy and cheap romance, taking the film perilously close to The Three Stooges at one moment and to a cartoon version of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm at another. Unfortunately, a good portion of the clever humour is language-based and untranslatable into English subtitles. For example, because Chinese has no phonetic distinction between “he” and “she,” the mistaken identity subplot (in which Wing-chun is mistaken for a man) is more sophisticated than it must appear to non-Chinese-speaking audiences. Nonetheless, the actors’ performances are, for the most part, exemplary, and so, despite the silliness and romantic dross, there are veins of gold.
The main protagonists are women: Yim Wing-chun (again Michelle Yeoh), dressed always in men’s kungfu clothes until the film’s final act; her aunt Fong, nicknamed “Stinky-Mouth” and “Abacus” (Yuen King-tan); and the beautiful widow they rescue, Charmy (Catherine Hung-yun). Together, they form a transgressive triad that gives immense viewing and critical pleasures to feminist audiences.
Fong has two nicknames: the first, “Stinky-Mouth,” is a double-entendre since she not only dines on fermented tofu—a pungent delicacy—but she also always speaks her sharp mind. For example, she advises the soon-to-be – married sister of Wing-chun to immediately leave her husband and return home if he should beat her. She rejects the reprimand from her brother, the father of the bride, by pointing out that she was simply looking out for her niece. He is exasperated by her unrelenting directness about gender relations, and he identifies her friendship with Wing-chun as the cause of the latter’s “manliness.”14 Fong’s second nickname, “Abacus,” arises from another kind of shrewd judgment: she is materially driven, sharp in commerce, and decisive; she derides the slowness and indecision of the merchants (who are no match for her business “killer instincts”) as well as the government-appointed and apportioned Scholar Wong (Waise Lee Chi-hung).
Though neither physically nor intellectually wanting, Fong’s rejection of timidity, diffidence, and muteness as “feminine,” and her refusal to be coy, coquettish, feeble, or withdrawn, result in her being passed over as an object of desire. That, however, does not discourage her from being the desiring subject, with her own distinct tastes and plans. In the first half of the film Fong leads Wing-chun to trick the wealthy Scholar Wong into paying out Charmy’s debt, which was incurred from her husband’s burial, and in the second half of the film she tricks him into marriage by first “compromising” him (she initiates and consummates sexual relations with him by letting him think he is actually with Charmy) and then by coercing him to marry her.
Foul-breathed and foul-mouthed, Fong indulges in fermented tofu to satisfy her connoisseur appetite, calls a spade a spade to rebuff the machismo lies, drives the sharpest deals to build her family’s business, sees through gender-relations to both appease and dupe the slow-witted male population of the village, and picks and gets the husband of her dreams. Because the audience (i. e., the camera) is located to share Fong’s point of view in these scenes, we may giggle, laugh, or shake our heads at her projects, but we are never invited to shake a finger at her.
At first the beautiful widow Charmy appears to be too conventional to suggest transgression. She is a good wife, risking all to save an ill husband and
then, in accordance with Confucian principles, selling herself to pay for his burial. The oddness arises when she dresses in Wing-chun’s discarded clothes in one of Fong’s manoeuvres to drum up business for the tofu shop (Fong reminds everyone, “nowadays, everything depends on the packaging”). Indeed, Charmy goes on to consciously and playfully assume the position of spectacle for the villagers, thereby contributing significantly to the tofu business of the family that took her in; she also introduces to Fong and Wing-chun a frankness concerning erotic play and feminine pleasures, exceeding the role of passive wife or grief-stricken widow.
On this first day when Charmy emerges from the bedroom in pretty maidens’ clothes that used to be Wing-chun’s, the looks exchanged between them— but especially the gaze from Wing-chun—are charged with textual turbulence. At the most obvious level, it is an erotic gaze at an object of beauty. From the narrative we already know that Charmy is extraordinarily beautiful and that men in the village line up every day to buy more tofu just to indulge in another stare. A typical textual strategy is to extend the erotic interaction to the film’s audience by a two-shot sequence, first of the beholder (whose gaze the film’s audience shares) and then, in a reverse-shot, of the spectacle (to complete the narrative circle and to pander to the audience’s own scopophilia). But this small film, in a bold move, puts Charmy off-screen as she poses in her new elegance and, instead, zooms in—swiftly, without attempt at self-effacement, from a medium shot that frames head to waist, to a close-up of head to collarbone—on Wing-chun, whose unblinking gaze is the image over which extradiegetic music begins to play. No one who watches the film can miss this unusual move, but it is especially refreshing when we recall, in contrast, Dragon’s persistent disavowal of lesbian interest and the unrelenting filmic efforts to infuse every look from its heroines with jealousy, malice, or maternal compassion.
An additional (not alternative) interpretation is that Wing-chun encounters her “lost femininity.” Seeing this beauty in her (i. e., Wing-chun’s) old clothes, Wing-chun must feel simultaneous recognition and misrecognition; in fact, we can reasonably compare her experience to that of the Lacanian “mirror stage” in which subjective experience of the self is comparatively more blemished than the vision of beauty before her eyes.15 In an early and important translation of Lacan’s work, Anthony Wilden (1968,74) characterizes this sighting of the more ideal self as “a vision of harmony by a being in discord.” Michelle Yeoh’s virtuoso performance makes this clear, but there is still something else—momentary nostalgia—for Wing-chun knows the “anterior future,” that “future catastrophe” that has already occurred (Barthes 1981, 96). The screenplay temporarily privileges this interpretation as Fong immediately begs Wing-chun’s pardon and explains that she “didn’t mean to”—that is, Fong didn’t mean to remind Wing-chun of her passage (the “future catastrophe”) from feminine beauty and charm. Significantly, however, Wing-chun does not concede to the misogyny that underlies the fear of “losing one’s femininity”; instead, she teases her aunt for being “brainless”16 and they share a laugh at the village men who would return tirelessly for another scoop of tofu and another gaze at her—that is, for another gaze at the “Tofu Beauty” that she used to be before she threw off women’s clothing in exchange for men’s garb, wushu, and independence. Now, as Fong candidly points out, the “bumps” that are supposed to be on her chest have gone to her biceps and those on her behind have gone to her thighs.17 Although “musculinization” is presented as the reason Wing-chun lost her status as “Tofu Beauty” of the village (therein revealing the conventional desires of the village men), the film never argues that she has thus become less of a woman; instead, we see that Wing-chun “emerges as a de-formation of the normal,” suggesting “new political aggregates…and refus[ing] to keep every body in its place” (Russo 1994,16).
Wing-chun rescues Charmy three times from the mountain-bandits, defeating their leaders and foiling their plans; when their Second Commander tries to abduct Charmy in the night, his heated loins become literally so when Wing-chun throws flames at him from atop a fence post. This brings the First Commander into the fray and, thanks to his amazing “cotton belly” (which sucks in any kicking foot or offending fist and pulverizes it—his very own vagina dentata, if you will),18 he fights the high-kicking, light-as-air, leaping and punching Wing-chun to slightly better than a draw. Shaken by her first near-defeat (she is beaten but not vanquished), Wing-chun seeks advice from her teacher, the abbess Ng. The aging nun gives her the final key to the technique—the famous “whipping action,” which uses the opponent’s strength and weight against him—and, with this, aerial Wing-chun is able to defeat the First Commander.
Much of the fighting in this film’s narrative is the result of what I put forward as the other side of the Freudian penis-envy paradigm: womb anxiety. The womb is something both left behind and sought, both denigrated in language and venerated in secret. In Wing Chun, it is the ultimate outrage. The bully who cannot even meet Wing-chun’s challenge to smash the tofu had started off by telling Wing-chun to “go home and make babies”: he wanted to put this lofty, offending womb back in its place. Her fight with Second Commander ends significantly, not just casually, in his castration; thereafter, he is a self-confessed, self-pitying insomniac because he can never have children.
In the first duel between First Commander and Wing-chun, he agrees to give up Charmy if he loses; in the second and final duel three days later, the stakes are apparently higher: he must call Wing-chun “Mom” if he loses. Wing – chun wins the first duel when she meets his challenge and successfully pulls out the long, heavy spear that he had, with brute force, “implanted” at nearly roof level into a stone wall; but he is strong and she sustains internal injuries in their combat. Wing-chun arrives at the second duel dressed—for the first time in the film—in women’s clothes: pink women’s kungfu clothes. She chooses a set of short swords to fight against First Commander’s long, heavy spear. Again he is strong, but she is light on her feet while he is weighed down by his weapon. She leaps and kicks and both gives and takes several hits, until he pursues her into a hut; there, his long spear immediately becomes a burden, getting caught first in the doorway and then in the ceiling. “Length is useless,” she shouts at him! The double-entendre is clear and it is amusing, but what is most pleasing is the film’s portrayal of her indifference to his weapon (let us not forget that, in enormous contrast, all three women in Dragon fetishize the hero’s precious sword). Instead of usurping it when First Commander loses his spear (it’s stuck, this time inadvertently, in a wall), Wing-chun throws down her swords too and they continue their fight with empty hands. He attacks with strength and throws fast and hard punches, but Wing-chun bends and dodges and leaps out of harm’s way. Like the mosquitoes that she earlier observed perching on the soft mosquito net that gives way to every punch thrown at it, Wing-chun is precise in her flexibility and she is not harmed by her opponent’s brute force. In the end, when he has exhausted himself, it is her turn to attack, and she defeats him easily.
Since the strength of Wing Chun kungfu lies in its philosophy of using the opponent’s weight and momentum against him, it is more deadly in proportion to the opponent’s strength and force. But the body count in the film is exactly zero, in spite of Wing-chun’s victories against the bandits and kidnappers; in fact, the worst that she does is to castrate Second Commander, which is symbolic not only of a woman defeating a man but also of how this particular style of kungfu bends the phallus back upon itself. Significantly, the film’s final battle does not end in a phallocentric exhilaration that erects a singular authority: in apparent paradox, Wing-chun uses her kungfu (i. e., her labour and her martial arts skills [see Note 1]) to defend the non-hierarchical character of her community.
Wing-chun is the most thematically important part of the “transgressive triad.” Unlike the schoolgirl transgressions of Charmy or the wheeling – dealings of Fong, Wing-chun (and Michelle Yeoh, who plays her) is constantly in forbidden territory (at both the diegetic and extradiegetic levels): she cross-dresses, she fights, and she is as quick and as comical as any Jackie Chan character when she challenges a local strongman to smash a flat of tofu (the most smashable thing of all); amazingly, he fails (because of her marvelous acrobatics, which repeatedly jockeys the tofu out of his reach). The film ends with her wedding: dressed in her bridal finery, she makes a spectacular leap onto her horse some distance away: she has obviously not abandoned either her aerialism or her love of kungfu. Wing-chun marries her childhood sweetheart, finds a freedom that suits her and fits her world, and goes on to become the legend that every Chinese schoolgirl knows. The historical Wing-chun is arguably the most famous teacher of kungfu in modern Chinese history; the style is, of course, named for her.