Of all the unique and diverse styles, Wing Chun has risen to become one of the most recognized styles of Kung Fu in the world, and beyond. It has even appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Iron Man 3 (2013) begins with the titular character of Tony Stark working a Wing Chun wooden dummy. Iron Man/Stark is played by Robert Downey Jr., who is a devout practitioner of Wing Chun. Downey claims it help him beat his drug addiction. While Iron Man doesn’t exemplify Wing Chun techniques (if you had an iron man suit, you wouldn’t need it), the signature style is clearly exemplified by Downey in his two Sherlock Holmes films (2009, 2011).
However, a wooden dummy cameo of the 32-film $28 billion MCU franchise has been a small fish in comparison to the worldwide impact of Asian film representation. The roots of Wing Chun inclusion within Kung Fu movie genre run deep, all the way back to the first Chinese actor to become an international icon, Bruce Lee.
The Little Dragon
It’s common knowledge that Bruce Lee’s main Kung Fu teacher was Grandmaster Ip Man (also spelled Yip Man). Ip Man (1893-1972) was a leading proponent of Wing Chun from southern China. Bruce Lee (1940–1973) studied Wing Chun under the Grandmaster when he was young and living in British Hong Kong.
After immigrating to the United States, Lee went on to develop his own style. He dubbed it Jeet Kune Do and became an outspoken antagonist of what he called ‘classical’ Kung Fu. Lee was so defiant that one of Lee’s friends, George Lee, made a mocking grave model called ‘The Classical Mess’, echoing his sentiments. Emblazoned on the tombstone is written “In memory of a once fluid man, crammed and distorted by the classical mess.”
Nevertheless, elements of traditional Wing Chun undeniably are woven into Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. In his posthumously published books on JKD, his strategies and tactics are built upon Wing Chun principles, tempered by the pedagogy of European fencing. However, Lee’s writings on JKD must be approached cautiously. They were all based upon Lee’s copious notes, which were not necessarily his conclusions. He didn’t live long enough to formalize what JKD might have become. He only published one book in his lifetime and that was Chinese Gung-Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self Defense.
Lee’s global cultural impact is indisputable. And with him, the status of Wing Chun was elevated, coat tailing upon Lee’s international fame.
When it comes to the Kung Fu movie genre, the number of Bruce Lee impersonator/imposter films is unfathomable. No celebrity has been impersonated as much as Lee, so much so that there are several actors who have built their cinematic career as Bruce Lee imitators. This subgenre even has a name – Bruceploitation – and it’s littered with grindhouse fare that saturated the box office in the wake of Lee’s passing.
With such a preponderance of Bruce Lee films, it was a natural progression to move to his master. In 2008, Donnie Yen began his highly fictionalized Ip Man franchise. The first film, Ip Man, was a blockbuster, as well as a gamechanger for Yen, who had already starred over forty films. Ip Man catapulted him into a true international A-lister. Yen’s Ip Man series spanned four films and a spin-off. Like the Kaiju genre, the Kung Fu genre can be characterized by their ‘versus’ face-offs. Ip Man 2 (2010) is Yen versus Sammo Hung. Ip Man 3 (2015) is Yen versus Mike Tyson. And Ip Man 4: The Finale (2019) is Yen versus Scott Adkins. Yen and Adkins reunited as assassins in John Wick: Chapter 4. The spin-off focused upon one of Ip Man’s rivals, Cheung Tin-chi, played by Max Zhang, and added Academy-award winner Michelle Yeoh as Tso Ngan Kwan and Dave Bautista as Owen Davidson, to the cast.
In the same year that Ip Man 2 came out, director Herman Yau released The Legend is Born: Ip Man with Dennis To the titular role. Vying for authenticity, Ip Man’s real-life son, Ip Chun, has a cameo appearance in this film. This film also spawned a sequel, Ip Man: The Final Fight, released in 2013. Playing an older Ip Man, Anthony Wong took over the role.
In a bizarre moment of synchronicity, another major Ip Man movie came out in 2013. That same year, Wong Kar-wai released his cinematic interpretation of Ip Man. Wong is one of Hong Kong’s leading auteur directors who’s works have been regularly hailed at international film festivals like Cannes. The Grandmaster stars Tony Leung (Wenwu from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) as Ip Man, and Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er, a master of Bagua. And artsy stylistic film, The Grandmaster premiered at 63rd Berlin International Film Festival and earned Zhang an unprecedented 12 different Best Actress awards for her performance in this film.
Known for his long pre-production development time, Wong had announced the project back in 2018 when Yen’s Ip Man emerged. There was even an early dispute over the titles of these films which both vied to be called Ip Man. And unlike Yen’s and Yau’s franchises, The Grandmaster was a one-off.
In the wake of these three independent fictionalized biopics of Ip Man, the flood gates were opened, and several other film franchises have emerged in the deluge. In 2018, an action-comedy fantasy Kung Fu League imagined Ip Man combined with other cinematic Kung Fu folk heroes, Wong Fei-hung and Huo Yuanjia, and the fictional film hero Chen Zhen. Dennis To returned play Ip Man again. In 2019, To reprised the role once more in Ip Man: Kung Fu Master. That same year, Ip Man and Four Kings was released with Michael Tong playing the Wing Chun grandmaster. In the wake of Donnie Yen’s and Anthony Wong’s poignant portrayals of Ip Man, filmmakers refocused their lenses upon Ip Man’s early imagined life. These films are like prequel creation stories, even though they aren’t connected to the previous films. Young Ip Man (2022) stars Zhao Wenhao as a youthful Ip Man and in Ip Man: The Awakening (2022), Miu Tse takes over as the young grandmaster.
Ip Man has entered of the public domain with filmmakers. However, only the Kung Fu movie fandom is sensitive to the wide and diverse filmography of Ip Man films in the West. While the big films like Yen’s Ip Man series and The Grandmaster have earned international recognition, most of these other films aren’t well known outside of China. But there is the rub.
Ranking Wing Chun
Wing Chun was a product of southern China, predominantly Hong Kong. This bounty of films has exposed Wing Chun to the mainland Chinese masses where its popularity has enjoyed a meteoric rise. It has become so popular in the mainland that China has established its own international ranking system. Known as duàn, this is the same character as dan in Japanese, meaning rank. Like every Chinese duàn system, it contains nine levels with 9 duàn being the highest.
However, it is important to remember that the language of southern China is Cantonese. This duàn ranking system is in mandarin. In mandarin, it’s not called Wing Chun. It is called Yǒngchūn.
Most of the Wing Chun diaspora have established their own independent systems of ranking so it is unlikely that Yǒngchūn duàn system will gain much footing internationally. However, it has great potential within the People’s Republic of China. This means it’ll likely take a generation before the impact is felt. It’s akin to MMA. When MMA first appeared, China floundered. And some even blamed the ineffectiveness of Kung Fu as the cause – that ‘classical’ mess that Lee recognized. But now, a generation or so later, it has caught on and China is now fielding international level champions. With the constant stream of Chinese Wing Chun films inspiring the next generation of practitioners, coupled with the instigation of the Yǒngchūn duàn system, anticipation percolates for another surge in a few decades from now.
For more on the colorful history of Wing Chun, check out Wing Chun In-Depth: Skills for Combat, Strategies for Life by Munawar Ali Karim and Loukas Kastrounis.
Photo credit: The Classical Mess by George Lee. Shown in the ‘Bruce Lee: Under the sky, one family' exhibition at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco.