Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Wing Chun as Woman Warrior

Michelle Yeoh as Yim Wing Chun in Wing Chun (dir. Yuen Woo Ping, 1994).

Last month I had the great pleasure of attending the first Martial Arts Studies conference, run by Paul Bowman at Cardiff University. It was a fascinating event, bringing together a range of speakers approaching the martial arts from a dazzling array of disciplinary perspectives, including film and media studies, anthropology and ethnography, sociology, medicine, sports science and hoplology. Paul’s project – interrogated at length in his recent (and excellent) book Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015) – is to start to investigate what’s at stake in such a trans-disciplinary object or field of study, and to set up a dialogue between the very different – often seemingly clashing – approaches to the martial arts. (Some of the keynotes are available online here.)

At the conference, I gave a joint paper along with my colleague susan puisan lok, a fascinating contemporary artist and an insightful theorist of visual culture in general and Asian diasporic experiences in particular. (Susan’s current artistic project, RoCH Fans and Legends, exploring Jin Yong’s Condor trilogy, its many cinematic/televisual adaptations and their global cult following, is of particular interest to me…)

In our paper we looked at representations of gender and the figure of the woman warrior (the nüxia) in the film Wing Chun (dir. Yuen Woo-ping, 1994). It’s a great film, and stars the magnificent Michelle Yeoh at her best.

Our starting point was a quote from actress Cheng Pei-pei, who recounted in an interview clashing with director Chang Cheh during the filming of Golden Swallow (1968) when he directed his male actors to leave a scene leaping through an open window, whilst he expected Cheng to walk through the door. Cheng refused, insisting that her character – a swordswoman – would leave through the window too.

Cheng Pei-pei playing a cameo as Wing Chun's teacher, the Abess Ng Mui in Wing Chun.  

Entrances, exits and other interactions across windows also seemed to us to be an insistent and structuring conceit in the construction of Wing Chun, with Yeoh’s character, Wing Chun herself, for example, leaping through a window to do battle with villains in the very first scene. Our concern was not just with how Wing Chun moves through these spaces, though, but also its other characters: its array of clownish and inadequate men, who sketch out a patriarchal system of authority in crisis, and the three sympathetic women who provide the core of identification and moral value within its narrative. Wing Chun lives with her Aunt Feng, a shrewd and entrepreneurial businesswoman, and they run a Tofu shop together. They take in a third woman, Yim Neung, who has been widowed and reduced to the point of selling herself for her husband’s funeral. Between them, they seem to sketch out three potential strategies for women (in its fictive world – and perhaps also in ours?) to make a living/life for themselves, in Wing Chun’s martial skill and heroism, Aunt Feng’s economic acumen, and Yim Neung’s “feminine” attractiveness.

Wing Chun, Aunt Feng and Yim Neung discuss their negotiation of gender expectations.

Our visuals for the paper, as we presented it, re-edited and slowed down all the scenes from the film where characters interact with windows and doors, revealing another kind of cinematic “choreography” to the work than fight choreography (though sometimes the two choreographies overlap).

These thresholds structure the space of the film (organised concentrically around the inner sanctum of the home – gendered female – out through the courtyard of Wing Chun’s house, through the shop-window which interfaces with the male and public realm of the street and the market, and out beyond the town into the wilderness in which bandits live. Windows, in particular, seem to mark liminal zones through which one may pass illegitimately with the athleticism of the warrior (xia/nüxia). They are also implicated, as “framing” devices, in the films scopic regimes, which are often phallocentric and voyeuristic, embodying a male gaze that often seems to belie the extent to which the film askes us to identify primarily with its female protagonists. But Wing Chun’s ability to pass through the window perhaps also marks a degree to which she is able to subvert and escape the framing power of such a gaze, and the normative social roles that it imposes on women. The ability to leap through the window, we argued, was related to Wing Chun’s propensity throughout the film towards cross dressing – another passage from one gendered social “frame” to another: her ability to step beyond the sanctioned social roles of femininity and embrace the conventionally “masculine” powers of the warrior.

Using some of the now growing literature on this film (esp. Sasha Vojkovic), some of the wider discourses on the figure of the woman warrior in Hong Kong/Chinese cinema (e.g. Lisa Funnell), and on Chinese masculinity/femininity in the wider sense (Kam Louie, Kwai-Cheung Lo) – combined with discussions of “queer theory” insights into cross dressing (Halberstam, Butler), we examined Wing Chun’s ability (and that of the film’s other characters) to cross gendered roles and spaces.

The next step will be to turn this into a paper for publication – but in the meantime, please feely free to contact me for further information on the paper as it stands!

In the meantime, here's the trailer for the film!

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