Friday, May 23, 2008

Wing Chun Shines in New Kung Fu Biopics

Kung Fu Cinema by Mark Pollard

With Tony Leung and Donnie Yen both portraying famous Wing Chun master Yip Man in upcoming biopics and the recent U.S. DVD release of Universe’s highly successful 2007 WING CHUN TV series starring Yuen Biao and Nicholas Tse, the fighting art that gave Bruce Lee his foundation is enjoying a resurgence of popularity.

Donnie Yen - Yip Man movie Donnie Yen in a sneak peak at a promo shot for Wilson Yip’s biopic of Wing Chun Grandmaster YIP MAN, coming in 2009.

Of late, I have been furiously working my way through all 40 episodes of WING CHUN (YONG CHUN, 葉問傳) an excellent martial arts TV drama that premiered last summer. In it, kung fu actor Yuen Biao stars as Leung Jan, the sixth student in direct succession to Wing Chun’s founder, a Shaolin nun named Ng Man. For Yuen, it is a return to a role he first portrayed in Sammo Hung’s kung fu classic THE PRODIGAL SON (1981).

One of the series’ central themes is the slow evolution of conservative martial tradition in a rapidly changing world. Those familiar with the legendary history of Wing Chun know that it was once a closed art passed on to only a very few select students. In the TV series, the initial reasoning for this secrecy is that Ng Man, a survivor of the Manchu purge of China’s southern Shaolin Temple, feared that the Qing government might use the knowledge of confiscated Shaolin kung fu manuals against practitioners. Ng began to develop Wing Chun to counter other Shaolin techniques in the event that future generations might have to battle government forces trained in Shaolin kung fu. She passed this new art on to a female student, Yim Wing-chun, and it was further developed to counter the superior strength of male attackers, a more plausible explanation for its development.

As Leung Jan, Yuen Biao is wary about who to name as his successor, in part because of his determination to follow tradition and have only one student as instructed by his teacher Wong Wah-bo (Sammo Hung). Yet all around him, China is undergoing great change. The Qing government has passed away and modernization is encroaching on old traditions. To give the story some added dramatic muscle, Jan is at odds with his son Bik (Nicholas Tse) and initially refuses to teach him for fear that the art will be misused, He instead takes on another student, Chan Wah-shun. In real life, Chan would eventually have a few more students, none more famous than Yip Man, the man who first taught the art openly and who has become the subject of Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s latest collaboration.

In YIP MAN, a production of Mandarin Films, Donnie Yen portrays the title character while Sammo Hung provides action direction and Yip Man’s son acts as consultant. Hung has been Wing Chun’s most famous advocate in the filmmaking arena ever since he set about directing a pair of Wing Chun films beginning with WARRIORS TWO in 1978 and ending with THE PRODIGAL SON. Although originally a student of Chinese opera, Hung was a huge fan of Bruce Lee and had become fascinated with Lee’s foundation in Wing Chun. Among Yip Man’s many students was Lee, who went on to defy Chinese kung fu traditions entirely and openly teach foreigners.

It is unusual these days for Yen to turn over action direction to someone else. Like cooks in the kitchen, action directors accustomed to calling the shots during action sequences do not always mix well. Such was the case for the shooting of DRUNKEN MASTER 2 when Lau Kar-leung walked off the production, according to rumor, after having a dispute with Jackie Chan over the finale. However, Hung and Yen apparently struck an amicable working relationship during the shooting of KILL ZONE (aka SPL) when Yen was in charge. As his work in THE PRODIGAL SON and the WING CHUN TV series show, it’s undeniable that Sammo is the right man for the job and Donnie’s performance will undoubtedly benefit from it.

Wilson Yip’s YIP MAN began production in March and is expected to wrap in June. Based on his previous work with Yen, it’s more than likely that his film will be more action-oriented than another Yip Man biopic still in development by filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. Tony Leung, a talented dramatic actor not known for fighting roles has long been attached to play the title role and reportedly has being undergoing Wing Chun training in preparation. In comparing the two films, Wong recently told Chinese media that his film would focus more on a dramatic love story, an element the filmmaker is quite familiar with.

Not a whole lot is known about the real Yip Man in the West apart from his public life. He was born October 1st, 1893 in Foshan as Ki Man and began his training in Wing Chun at the age of 13, largely under the tutelage of Chan Wah-shun’s student Ng Chung-sok. After Chan’s death, he also trained under Leung Bik (played by Nicholas Tse in WING CHUN). He attended school in Hong Kong and later became a police officer in Foshan. While there, he informally taught co-workers, friends and relatives. During the Japanese occupation Yip was approached to train Japanese soldiers but refused. In 1949, Yip fled Communist China (no doubt a sensitive issue that both films will try to sidestep) and settled in Hong Kong where he opened his first martial arts school. It was during this time that a young Bruce Lee received three years of training under Yip. In 1967, he and several students established the Hong Kong Ving Tsun Athletic Association. Yip Man died in 1972 from throat cancer.

A report on Wilson Yip’s film at Wenweipo.com suggests that YIP MAN will be another international prestige picture, like FEARLESS, that promotes wushu, or Chinese martial arts and celebrates Chinese patriotism and pride. The timing is right considering the wave of nationalism that has been spreading worldwide in the wake of pro-Tibet protests that have appeared ahead of the Beijing Olympics.


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