Empty Mind Films has produced some of the highest quality and most engaging martial arts documentaries seen anywhere in the last few years. They are a small organization, and as a result they are selective about the projects they take on. Luckily we seem to be on the same wave length.
They have also devoted substantial time and effort to documenting the Chinese martial arts. It has been my personal experience (from traveling in Asia) that it is relatively easy to find interesting martial arts in Japan and they have shot some good stuff there. China presents an entirely different set of challenges, and this is where they really shine. Their film on the Chen village and Chen style taiji is a classic. It is mandatory viewing for anyone interested in Chinese martial studies or the state of Taiji today. I would not hesitate to use that film in a university level classroom.
I think they may have come close to the same level of excellence with their most recent martial arts themed release Wing Chun: A Documentary. While filmed exclusively in Hong Kong and Foshan this study of the modern hand combat system sought to explore the diversity of thought and practice arising from the teachings of Ip Man. He was an active instructor in Hong Kong from the early 1950s until his death in 1972. All of the individuals who were interviewed for this film were associated with the Ip Man Wing Chun clan, either as direct descendants, students or grand-students.
Many individuals in the broader Wing Chun world will find this editorial direction limiting, and possibly offensive. There was no discussion of non-Ip Man lineages, let alone non-Leung Jan lineages of Wing Chun. The story of the art’s origin was told in a simple and direct way that supports the supremacy of the Ip Man Wing Chun clan. Viewers are told that the art resided with Leung Jan who had only one student, Chan Wah Shun. While many people taught Wing Chun in Foshan in the 1930s, what they did was different from the art that Ip Man spread to the world from his schools in Hong Kong. Wing Chun as the world knows it today is a result of Ip Man’s innovations in the 1950s.
One can only assume that the makers of this film must have known they were bound to upset the Yuen Kay-San Wing Chun clan, among many others. Nevertheless, I suspect that this editorial slant is largely correct. While there are certainly lineages of Wing Chun being taught today that do not want to associate themselves with Ip Man, the truth is that he single handedly created the entire global demand for the art that we recognize today. He did this by training hundreds of students, including Bruce Lee.
In a very real way Ip Man set the terms for the global discussion of Wing Chun that is still unfolding. He codified the values, set the standards and decided which aspects of China’s complex martial heritage were best adapted to a modern, urban, middle class market. Ip Man single handedly trained an entire generation of exceptionally talented martial artist that would bring his art to North America, Europe and even back to mainland China. Without his innovations in Hong Kong in the 1950s, and the rise of Bruce Lee to superstardom in the 1970s, it is exceedingly unlikely that anyone would be interested in seeking out any of the non-Ip Man lineages that seem to be so valuable today. In a very real sense they exist only because he existed first, and they define themselves in reference to the model he established. So yes, the story of Wing Chun after 1949 really is the story of the social community that Ip Man gathered around himself in Hong Kong and its subsequent explosion on the world stage.
Overall the production values of the documentary are sound and the videography was always good, and occasionally great. A few minor criticisms can be made. I found the pacing to be a little slow in places. The extra features were also quite brief and could have used more depth and development. They appeared to be mostly an afterthought and contributed little to the overall presentation of the story. I had hoped for more here.
On the other-hand, I quite liked how the documentary progressed and presented itself to the audience. The director was not afraid to let the individual masters he interviewed tell their own stories on their own terms. A majority of the screen time was dedicated to simply watching class room mechanics and instructions in a number of different schools throughout Hong Kong. I am sure that this material will surprise a lot of martial artists used to more regimented and formal decorum of Korean or Japanese schools.
The exploration of modern Wing Chun starts off with a visit to the VTAA headquarters in Kowloon and includes interviews with both Ip Ching (the younger son of Ip Man) and James Jar (current Chair of the VTAA). All of this information is very interesting. Next they visited the school of Donald Mak (a student of Chow Tze Chuen) who discusses his own understanding of why Wing Chun is a principal based art.
The narrative then turns to a branch of the Leung Sheung clan who have just opened a school in Mongkok. Leung Sheung was one of Ip Man’s most skilled students. He in turn taught Ng Wah Sum, who recently died. Some of Ng’s senior students have opened a school in his honor and Sifu Leung Ngor Yin and Sifu Jason Fung put on a spirited Chi Sau and Chi Girk demonstration.
After that the film heads back across the ferry to the Central District where it drops in on a Wing Chun class being taught in an upscale health club run by Australian expatriates, Sifu Nima and co-owner Heather Hogan. Nima is a student of Chu Shong Tin (the eldest remaining Hong Kong era student of Ip Man), and shares his master concern for the role of the mind and intentionality in Wing Chun. While the class was mostly dedicated to beginners there was quite a bit of enthusiasm and even a classic “the time I got in a fight” story. I have often thought about the role of this sort of personal narrative (one is tempted to compare it to religious witnessing or testimony) in creating identity and attachment with the art.
The next Sifu interviewed was Kong Chi Keung in the Wanchai neighborhood. Kong’s teaching style included a lot of discussion and lecture. His personal philosophy was somewhat eclectic and embraced borrowing and innovation, topics that were a matter of some concern to a number of other teachers (more on that later). As if to reinforce this impression, his school displayed a number of Lion Dance heads. While alive, Ip Man explicitly discouraged his students from becoming involved in Lion Dancing because of its association with criminality and the extortion of local shop keepers. I know for a fact that Ip Ching still has the same attitude about Wing Chun schools and Lion Dancing today.
Perhaps the most interesting segment of the show was the visit to Master Sam Lau’s Wing Chun school and hostel on Nathan Road at the tip of Kowloon. I was pretty impressed with what I saw here. Most of the students were visitors, only staying for a month or so to take Master Lau’s “intensive” course. That fact not withstanding he had them engaged in serious Chi Sao and everyone the camera turned to looked pretty solid. Clearly they weren’t all experts, but they were working hard, their energy was good and you could just feel the intensity in the room. I am definitely putting his school on my list of places to visit. Of all of the classes that the show profiled his seemed to be closest to my own experience in Wing Chun.
Lastly the documentary heads back up the Pearl River to Foshan, the ancestral home of Wing Chun, Ip Man and Bruce Lee. In fact, Wing Chun barely scratches the surface of this small city’s martial heritage. A lot of my own recent research focuses on the economic and social development of Foshan as a handicraft center in the Qing dynasty in an attempt to better understand what made some market towns, but not others, incubators for the martial arts.
Rather than answer that question the film focused on the Ip Man Museum built on the grounds of the Foshan ancestral temple. The segment was well shot and gave the feeling of actually being there.
This was followed by an interview with Lun Kai at the Sim Wing Martial Club in downtown Foshan. Lun Kai was among Ip Man’s first students when he made his initial foray into teaching the martial arts at a friend’s cotton factory in 1941. I thought that some of Lun Kai’s comments were quite interesting. He seemed to indicate that already in 1941 Ip Man’s Wing Chun was different from what was being taught elsewhere in Foshan. This really makes one wonder how early Ip Man began his reform process and what inspired him to do so.
It also gives one pause for thought as almost nothing being taught in that school was actually identifiable as “Wing Chun” to me, given my “modern” post-Ip Man vantage point. The angles and pressures looked tortured. It wasn’t clear what the intentionality behind the movements were. If this was a reflection of Ip Man’s Wing Chun from the 1940s, which had already diverged from what was generally taught in the 1930s, it makes one really wonder what “traditional” Wing Chun would have looked like? Once again, the modern understanding of the Wing Chun really begins with the thinking and innovation of one individual. Even earlier stages of his own teaching seem oddly distant.
The director and editor of the film went to some lengths not to impose too much narrative direction on all of this material. Even the film’s narration shows a light touch, keeping explanation of what is seen on screen to the bare minimum. Still, some themes did emerge. As I stated earlier, it is clear that they see the story of the Wing Chun and the story of the community of practitioners built by Ip Man as one and the same.
They also seemed to be impressed with the variety of different approaches to the teaching of the same art. This diversity was most obvious at the philosophical level, with some teachers embracing globalization and change, and others hanging back. But it also came up at the commercial level. It was clear that not everyone had the same business plan. Teachers operated out of larger associations, collective partnerships, health clubs and small, hole in the wall, schools. Master Sam Lau even seems to make as much money from running a hostel dedicated to Wing Chun pilgrims as he does actually teaching.
Even more interesting were the strains of thought and argument that seemed to arise, almost spontaneously, from the many interviews they conducted. By the end of the documentary there was a real sense of dialogue within the Ip Man clan. Much of this dialogue was concerned with thorny questions of authenticity, identity and change in the face of a rapidly growing global movement.
Only one of the Sifus interviewed in the movie was of western origin, but it did not seem lost on any of the masters that the vast majority of teachers and students today live outside Hong Kong and are not Chinese. Most of them are in Europe and North America where being in the third generation of local instruction is now pretty common. While most of these individuals have no primary connection to Hong Kong or the Chinese ethnicity, they remain very dedicated to Wing Chun. Increasingly it is their buying power and tourism dollars that are driving the development of the global Wing Chun movement.
Truth be told, many of these western practitioners are extremely good at what they do. It was certainly neat to see all of the different schools in Hong Kong. But I wasn’t really awed by anything I saw. I have seen instruction, understanding and chi Sao that was just as good, if not better, right here in the United States.
Nor is the US even the epicenter for Wing Chun in the west. There is clearly a lot more interest in Wing Chun in the UK and some parts of Europe than there is anywhere else in the world. If the beating heart of Wing Chun is anywhere, it is certainly not located in Foshan or even Hong Kong. Instead it’s metaphorical soul can probably best be found in the cold industrial cities of the UK, or maybe Germany.
This is both a blessing and a problem. On the one hand it means that Wing Chun is unlikely to ever be threatened with extinction again the way it was during the dark years of the Boxer Rebellion (when all Chinese martial arts became deeply unfashionable) and then again after 1949 (when the Chinese Communist Party noticed the unique relationship that existed between Wing Chun and membership in the “new gentry” class). The survival of the art finally seems assured.
On the other hand this is quite a problem. So many martial arts have left their traditional homeland and entered the global market place only to be changed beyond the point of recognition. How does Wing Chun spread itself around the world without losing its soul?
Specifically, how do we insure that this will remain Ip Man’s community, built on and promoting his insights and understanding of the Chinese martial arts? Almost every speaker addressed this question, and some did so at length.
For Sifu Donald Mak, Wing Chun must always remain a Chinese art because it was built on a conceptual foundation that westerners simply cannot easily understand or accept. If they wish to really understand the art it is necessary was for them to “come to china” in their thought, adapting themselves to Wing Chun’s mother culture. His comments seemed to anchor the conservative side of the spectrum.
Sifu Nima and Sifu Kong Chi Keung were the least bound to tradition. Both have a firm grounding in traditional Ip Man Wing Chun, yet both feel that the art must be open to adaptation to survive. For Sifu Nima that means going further even that Chu Shong Tin in conceptualizing and teaching Wing Chun as an “internal” martial art (something I have argued against here). Whatever the historical and philosophical problems with this move, it certainly seems to be popular among a certain group of western students.
Kong Chi Keung goes in exactly the opposite direction. He has thought deeply about Jeet Kune Do, Thai Kick Boxing and Brazilian Jujitsu, all arts that are popular in the west. He notes quite correctly that the martial arts landscape is changing quite rapidly right now and believes that Wing Chun must learn from these other arts and adapt in order to survive.
But how do you set the boundaries? When have you adapted yourself out of your art and your community? This is not an easy question to answer. Ip Ching and Sam Lau address this paradox the most explicitly. Both argue that Ip Man’s Kung Fu was genuine, and adherence to his principals remains the litmus test for “authentic” Wing Chun. And yet both freely admit that what he did was also original. It bore little resemblance to what was taught in Foshan and was a product of his life, experience and thought. Authenticity is a difficult concept for all of these masters. They all want to talk about it, to wrestle with it. Still, there is a universal acknowledgement that it is not enough of a foundation to justify any given approach to the art.
“Adaptation” itself is not a problem. Learning from your own experience and adapting your fighting style accordingly is not only a good idea, it’s a foundation concept for all of Wing Chun. In a real sense it is where Wing Chun came from. But clearly not all change is desirable or positive.
For Ip Ching the red-line appears to be intentionally lying about, or misrepresenting what Ip Man taught. This was a real problem in the early stages of Wing Chun’s globalization. During this phase the main body of students in Hong Kong were unaware of the claims that some of their brothers were making in the west. Lack of English skills and no universally read publications allowed Leung Ting to claim to be the heir to Ip Man when clearly he was not. More damaging to the reputation and growth of the art were individuals like Duncan Leung and William Cheung who made exaggerated and highly dubious claims about their “special status” and the “secret teachings” that only they were given, in an attempt to undercut the legitimacy of other Ip Man students.
Ip Ching and others roundly and forcefully rebutted this entire category of claims at multiple points in the documentary. They pointed out that those who made such claims are not only wrong, but they totally misrepresent the most basic and fundamental aspects of Ip Man’s life, personality and teaching philosophy. So clearly attempts to re-write Ip Man’s story in one’s own image are beyond the pale of what the community will accept.
Yet as Sam Lau reminds us, most of the problems that emerge in a global martial arts movement are more subtle. They are expressed in slipping standards, eccentric personal philosophies or creeping adoption of outside material to meet the demands of a local market. His solution to all of this is as simple as it is sweeping. In his view there should be an international regulatory body that can determine what Wing Chun is, and should set clear standards for practice, advancement and licensing.
It is an interesting idea. Lots of Japanese and Korean arts do exactly this. Interestingly Chinese ones tend not to. Why? I suspect it has something to do with the social structure of the traditional Chinese arts. They don’t facilitate a lot of trust or mutual reliance across party lines.
Every Wing Chun school already operates as a cell and is basically self-sufficient. Given that the art has never been more popular, I doubt many individuals will be all that keen to pay the immense start-up costs, and surrender the personal freedom to run their own schools, that such a solution would entail. And then there is the small issue of trust. No one would ever trust someone from outside their own lineage and clan to run such an organization. Regulatory bodies like this just make too convenient a club to beat your enemies with. His proposed body is just never going to happen, even though other arts do quite well in this sort of institutional setting.
By the end of this documentary I was proud of the community that Ip Man had created. He started a conversation about the nature of the Chinese martial arts in the modern world that is still going on today. But the future seems cloudy. While something called “Wing Chun” will continue to exist, I was less clear as to what it will look like.
Still, I do not foresee any immediate crisis. Ip Man was successful because he asked his students a compelling question. When we dedicate our minds and bodies to the practice of Wing Chun we are formulating our own answer, becoming part of the conversation that he started. It doesn’t look like we are in any danger of running out of things to say just yet. I suspect that Wing Chun will survive as a unified social community for as long people find Ip Man’s innovations relevant and his conversation gripping.
Wing Chun is one of the most popular martial arts to emerge from China. It is surpassed only by Taiji in terms of total students in the global community. Given the size of this potential market I have always been shocked that there is so little good media for Wing Chun practitioners. I highly recommend this film. It is topical and makes a valuable contribution to the conversation about Ip Man’s stature and place in the art today. Wing Chun: A Documentary should be on your viewing list. This film was directed by Jon Braeley and Betty Yuan. It is 75 minutes in length and is distributed by Empty Mind Films. You can order your copy here.
October 9, 2012 at 9:38 pm
Ben, great post! I have to admit, however, that mention of those HK neighborhoods made me hungry for some of my favorite restaurants there 🙂
October 10, 2012 at 3:17 am
Thanks Whitney! We will have to get over there and check them out. The documentary does do a good job of conveying the essential feels of the different neighborhoods.