Wing Chun is a female martial arts expert who chooses to dress as a man. A scholar (I think) visits her, hoping to convince her to work for him as a bodyguard/protector. However, since she's probably expensive, he figures he'll convince her to marry him and then just pay her in food. No, he's not very bright.
Meanwhile, a woman named Charmy arrives at the village, desperately looking for something that will cure her sick husband. Every man who sees her is drawn to her beauty, but, even so, no one is willing to help her. After her husband dies, she is forced to sell herself to pay for his funeral. Wing Chun and her aunt (whose name I can't remember, so I'll call her Aunt) want to help her, so Aunt convinces the scholar to pay up, I think by hinting that this might put him in Wing Chun's good graces.
Aunt is delighted with Charmy, whose beauty and traditional femininity attracts all kinds of men to their tofu shop. Leung Pok To arrives in town, hears of Charmy, and assumes she's Wing Chun, the childhood friend of his that he's determined to marry. He mistakes Wing Chun for a man and believes her to be Charmy's lover. Then there's the added complication of some bandits, one of whom is determined to steal Charmy away and marry her, the other of whom wants to beat Wing Chun in a fight to prove that he can "tame" her and then marry her.
I would never have put this in my Netflix queue if it hadn't been for a comment on CarrieS's review of Tai Chi Zero. Even then, I almost quit maybe 10 minutes into it. Something about the colors screamed “old movie” (it was produced in 1994), it looked super cheap, and I was having trouble dealing with the Chinese dialogue. I have no idea how emotions are conveyed in a tonal language like Chinese, and only being able to tell emotions by people's facial expressions took some adjusting.
I stuck with the movie, though, and I'm glad I did. Wing Chun is an awesome heroine, and watching her fight hordes of enemies and win was so much fun. One of my favorite fight scenes involved a tray of tofu – Wing Chun challenged a guy to break the tray of tofu while she protected it. She was never a damsel in distress, and she was usually cool and calm. Only Charmy, whose traditional femininity made her more conscious of her (perceived) lack of femininity, and Leung Pok To, who she thought she had lost to Charmy, seemed to put her emotions in turmoil.
Wing Chun's aunt was another favorite of mine. She was unmarried and a virgin. Although she told Wing Chun that men weren't worth it, in reality she really (really really) wanted to have sex. Which didn't mean she was going to change herself to better attract a man. No, she continued to verbally flay anyone who tried to get the better of her in business (she was the financial dragon of the family's tofu shop), she experienced no moral dilemma over tricking people, and she cheerfully used any and all advantages she possessed to get her way. Her primary interests were money and sex, in that order – romance held no appeal for her. While I wish she had managed to find someone better for herself, she did get what she wanted and seemed happy with the results.
I thought the way the film handled the three main female characters was interesting. Charmy, the one who had the most men falling at her feet and who, from the very beginning, wanted nothing more than to be married and bear children, was the only woman left unmarried by the end. Marriage and romance did seem to change Aunt and Wing Chun a little, which I was kind of sad about, but I don't think those changes were all that drastic. Aunt was a little less wicked and caustic in her speech, and Wing Chun dressed herself as a woman. I'm inclined to think that Aunt was still just as much of a dragon when it came to business dealings, and Wing Chun demonstrated that she hadn't completely abandoned her martial arts skills. I was glad to see that Pok To seemed okay with that - although he did tell her to tone it down a little at their wedding, he didn't interfere when she fought the leader of the bandits, and he never said anything about feeling like “less of a man” because she could kick butt as well or better than he could.
My initial problems with the movie never really went away, but I enjoyed it regardless. Yes, it was cheap – I could spot the wires in several of the fight scenes, and I noticed a few times when the horses Wing Chun and her opponent were riding were switched out for fakes. The subtitles were a bit rough. The acting could have been better. The pacing was so fast that I spent much of the beginning of the movie confused, and there was little time for anything but the most shallow characterization. I was amazed at how quickly Charmy got over the death of her husband (although I was able to accept it more when I realized that her feelings for him were probably more about duty and womanly responsibility than anything else). Because the movie was mostly composed of fight scenes and humor, there was little time for emotional development, so the romance between Wing Chun and Pok To was pretty “meh.” Even so, like I said, this movie was a nice hour-and-a-half's worth of fun.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Graceling (book) by Kristin Cashore - If you'd just like another story starring a kick-butt heroine and featuring romance with a guy who doesn't see the heroine's ability to kick butt as a threat to his masculinity, you might want to try this. It's YA fantasy. I've written about it.
- Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (anime TV series) - Another story featuring a strong, kick-butt heroine. There's also the barest sliver of romance, but don't watch it for that, or you'll probably be disappointed. I've written about this series, as well as the book it's based on.
- Shaolin Soccer (live action movie) - If it was the humor and martial arts aspects that attracted you to Wing Chun, you might want to give this a try. It's an over-the-top martial arts comedy featuring a Shaolin master who reunites with a bunch of other Shaolin masters. They form a soccer team and use their Shaolin skills to beat an evil opposing team.
- The Heroic Trio (live action movie) - If you'd like your cheesy martial arts movie to star women (Michelle Yeoh's in this one too!), you might want to give this a try.