Through the Window – Wing Chun as Woman Warrior

The origin myth of Wing Chun – a martial art invented by one woman for another – is striking with respect to gender. Of its many cinematic tellings, the most intriguing in reworking the figure of the heroic swordswoman is Yuen Woo-ping’s Wing Chun (1994). Sasha Vojkovic (2009) understands the film – emerging from a longer cultural tradition of women warriors – as ‘a landmark of … womanhood in Chinese cinema’ and ‘an art of empowering women and subverting patriarchal authorities’, where martial arts create a transformed femininity rather than merely masculinising the film’s protagonist. However – in spite of its rendering of a decaying patriarchy where the authoritative, sympathetic characters are overwhelmingly women – Wing Chun might be read as simultaneously undermining and reinscribing gender norms. This paper will take the form of an experimental visual/textual essay, in which some of the film’s key moments are re-cut and re-framed with a dialogic/reflexive commentary, exploring the film’s gender politics and our own spectatorial positionings. Our starting point is to investigate the repeated imagery of windows in Wing Chun. Cheng Pei-pei (who plays Wing-chun’s teacher) recounts refusing a direction, during the making of an earlier film, to exit a scene by the door rather than the window, like her male counterparts. A swordswoman, she insists, leaves by the window. Marking the boundaries of domestic (female) and public (male) space, the window, like the cinema screen, is not only a portal for gazes and misrecognitions, but also one through which the athletic, unconventional warrior (male or female) exits and enters. As a motif, how might ‘leaving by the window’ be read as a figure of female empowerment, resistance, or otherwise? How do the film’s three central female characters and archetypes – Wing-chun (‘martial artist’), her aunt (‘businesswoman’) and Yim Neung (‘beauty’) – speak and move within and beyond its frames, to invoke different femininities? How do narratives of Yeoh herself, transitioning from beauty queen to action star, intersect with the film’s images of Wing-chun as warrior and woman? Among multiple gazes, what spaces open up for spectators to variously imagine, identify or contest the empowered, transformed and gendered woman warrior?

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