Wing Chun Review
Taking its principal characters and basic plot outline from the one of the many legends surrounding the Wing Chun form of martial arts, director Yuen Woo-ping puts his own spin on the trials and tribulations one of the founders of the art faced during the prime of her life. Taking the lead role is Michelle Yeoh, who as the title character of Yim Wing Chun, the daughter of a Tofu vendor in a rural village faces adoration when she drives away the local bandits using her martial arts ability. On the edge of those twin blades she wields so finely is the unfortunate ramifications of her decision to learn Kung Fu. Considered too masculine by prospective suitors she embarrasses her family and causes her sister to marry the first man who will take her, while her abilities surpass any of the male fighters who consider their sport sacred and Yim Wing Chun an insult.
The arrival in town of Yim Neung, a young, beautiful and soon to be widowed lady incites the bandits to kidnap her for their leader. Failing at the hands of Yim Wing Chun the bandits run off vowing revenge while Yim Neung seeks refuge with her saviour by joining the Tofu trade under the guidance of Yim Wing Chun's Auntie Fong, otherwise known as Acid Mouth. A romantic subplot or two follow while the bandits return with staggering consistency before the final showdown between Yim Wing Chun and the bandit’s leader ensues.
Fairly standard plotting I hear you cry and you'd be right. This is the stuff of legend and by the time of release back in 1993 the legends were already tired and predictable, but there is more to Wing Chun than you might expect, and I'm not just talking about the martial art. Besides the action, which I'll get to later, Yuen Woo-ping, his screenwriter and key cast members weave an interesting romantic subplot that relies upon a mistaken identity story that allows for a great deal of comedy to play out. Treading a fine line between subtle sexual innuendo and altogether childish gags that one would be more accustomed to seeing in a Stephen Chow production, the combination works thanks to the cast who bounce off each other so well.
Playing the calm, considered straight girl Michelle Yeoh as Wing Chun is perfect. She has the moves and a refined beauty the legend deserves and brings a sense of playfulness to the role which allows the character to develop in the leaps and bounds she does towards the end without ever really bothering the viewer too much. Playing alongside her are a cast of wonderful character actors who grab their roles by the proverbial balls and really go for it, working the camera their larger than life creations offset well thanks to the grounded lead which allows for a series of bedroom related shenanigans to gain laughs they may otherwise have failed to receive. As Yim Neung Catherine Hung Yan plays to the crowd (both on and off screen), using her beauty to woo the villagers to the Tofu shop where owner and auntie to Wing Chun, ‘Acid Mouth’ also resides. Making for a wonderful double-act in the films opening half Yuen King-tan as Acid Mouth, aptly named as she spouts venomous comments with her fermented-tofu breath, plays off Michelle Yeoh quite sublimely and goes on to greater achievements as she literally takes the man she wants and makes him stay through her wily business know-how.
As Leung Bok-Cho, Donnie Yen arrives midway through when all three women are fully established in the viewers mind. Looking for his childhood friend and betrothed Wing Chun, he mistakes her for Yim Neung and Wing Chun for a man and Yim Neung's lover. Again this is something we've seen before and though she dresses like a man, its somewhat of a stretch to consider that soft, sweet face of Yeoh's as that of a mans, but anyone familiar with films of this ilk will have long since learnt to throw caution to the wind and go with the flow. Though it may be stretched over too long a period of time, the mistaken identity card rarely fails to gain the laughs the director is looking for and is helped along by Yen's boyish charm.
The sexual undercurrent that runs throughout the comedic routines is both wonderfully implemented but also something of a shock. Hong Kong audiences (and indeed the censors) are famously conservative, yet here the oft seen period martial arts jokes of touching a women's undergarments and receiving a slap are preserved and bolstered by dialogue and action that is laced with innuendo, and more outright physical gags that are simply hilarious because of their childish attitudes towards sex and the nerve required to both film and keep them in. From the girls screaming in delight as they rub each others feet during their evening bathing to Acid Mouth's instructional techniques on how to grind the grain (with Naked Gun-esque visual references) its unusually placed but wonderfully fun none-the-less. The aforementioned sexual innuendo even runs into the action sequences, which deserve a paragraph of their own.
Lead players Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen are joined onscreen by old master Tsui Siu-keung, all extremely competent in their fields and directed here by Yuen Woo-ping with additional input from Donnie Yen. From initial short bouts featuring Wing Chun fighting off the marauding bandits, playing with them as she attacks with the blunt edge of a sword the action starts off as you'd expect, with innovation frequently on display while the performances delight the viewer and are complimented by solid camera placement and editing techniques. The action sequences are positioned quite frequently throughout the runtime and progress into a series of extended and more serious fights between Yeoh, Yen and Tsui Siu-keung who plays the bandit leader. Far from being grounded Yuen Woo-ping at this time was very much in favour of wire-assisted choreography, but thanks to the martial arts form the story is about we are treated to a healthy dosage of close combat, with fast combinations of hand techniques most honourably depicting the Wing Chun forms (as the film otherwise eschews genuine Wing Chun displays), while the usage of weapons are also favoured with some great pole and double-sword action. If there are any complaints here it would the relative lack of serious fights Donnie Yen is allowed to partake in, but this really is Michelle Yeoh's film and with her showdown (split across two lengthy sequences) against Tsui Siu-keung she commands the screen, combining grace and beauty to defeat her opponent.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen this is another solid presentation from Hong Kong Legends that is only marred by source material restraints. In terms of restoration you won't see a speck of dust or grit on the print, while background shimmering is kept to a bare minimum and any grain present is natural (and varies depending on the shooting conditions, with location shots featuring more than interiors). Colours are strong though I suspect the reds and pinks occasionally featured should look a little more vibrant than they actually are, while black levels are often very good with the night sequences holding up very well. In terms of detail once again it tends to vary depending on the type of shooting conditions with the beautiful mainland china locales looking good but never as wonderfully detailed as you might hope, while interior and close-up character shots fare much better and look quite superb at times. The compression has been handled well with no real signs of edge enhancement, though that old problem found on HKL titles of a lengthy layer change is still in effect here.
The original Cantonese language track and optional English dub are both represented by Dolby Digital 5.1 remixes. Opting for the former I was presented with a decent sound experience that boasts clear dialogue and music separation on a remix that maintains the original stereo source as it favours front speaker action with the surrounds only being employed to add some ambience.
Optional English and English HOH subtitle tracks appear to offer a literal translation that flows very well with the onscreen action, though once again in his audio commentary Bey Logan notes a mistranslation featured in the original theatrical prints that has been reproduced here by Hong Kong Legends.
Bey Logan is flying solo for the audio commentary track having originally been scheduled to record it alongside good friend and the films co-star Donnie Yen. This is probably for the better as he tends to get sidetracked when not alone, and here Logan delivers one of his most compelling tracks in recent times as it goes back to the early days of Hong Kong Legends, with him discussing a film that has an historical basis for him to delve into. And delve he does, with the many legends surrounding the Wing Chun style touched upon with comparisons and contrasts to the legends of other martial art forms. Even without Donnie Yen in the studio we hear several stories from the set as Bey took the time to discuss the film with him, while biographical information is also included on many of the films stars, most of whom Bey has yet to have the chance to speak at length about allowing these aspects of the commentary to appear fresh to seasoned viewers.
Two interviews are included on the disc, the first with Donnie Yen who, speaking in English talks with much adoration of his co-star Michelle Yeoh before going on to discuss the horse-back action sequence that he choreographed and directed for the main feature. A genuine personality Donnie is always a pleasure to listen to, but sadly at just 15-minutes this is over all too quickly.
Tsui Siu-keung's interview runs for a little over 17-minutes and begins with a personal introduction outlining his training routines before moving on to discuss the prolific actor’s screen career. Marred slightly be the actors own vanity – something he declares early on by the way – the content becomes more relevant as he begins to discuss the films production. With plenty of good words offered for his director and co-stars we also hear a little about the infamous events that led to the parting of ways between Donnie Yen and Yuen Woo-ping, but sadly like the formers interview we can only hope for more details as they never come.
Trailers make up the rest of the discs extra features, with both original theatrical and UK promotional efforts for Wing Chun alongside numerous previews of other Hong Kong Legends and Premier Asia titles.
The story being told may be fairly standard for a martial arts picture but it’s also the stuff of true legend and thanks to the enamoured lead performances, outstanding displays of martial arts and some delightfully subtle and equally childish comedy Wing Chun is a highly recommended slice of action that has been oft-forgotten since its 1993 release, but should be picked up by fans of the genre post haste and enjoyed today.