For the third and final time, Donnie Yen has fleshed out the legendary Wing Chun grandmaster and teacher of Bruce Lee, Ip Man, in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 3 coming to the U.S. on January 22. If you’ve seen the other movies then nothing will surprise in this finale, which is as epic as it is implausible. In these movies you’ll see Ip Man fight ten karate masters at once, defeat heavyweight boxers three times his size, and cripple whole waterfront gangs with bamboo sticks. The King’s Speech these are not, so surely real life masters would take umbrage how Ip Man have made kung-fu a comic book super power. Or so I thought, until I spoke to one of them.
Master William Kwok teaches Ip Man’s Wing Chun at Gotham Martial Arts in the upper east side of Manhattan. In 2014, his school was the subject of a documentary special on China Central Television.
Kwok loved Ip Man 3 — Like, really loved it, complete with an enthusiastic review on his personal blog. Given his lifelong dedication to Wing Chun, I presumed Master Kwok would scoff at Ip Man like an Olympian watching WrestleMania.
“I like it not only because of the action but also [because] they talk about messages about martial arts, behind the meaning of studying,” he explains in our phone call from his office. Though a certified expert, Master Kwok explained to Inverse why it’s okay for movies to spice up reality with preposterous fantasy.
I was surprised to learn you enjoyed Ip Man 3. Like I explained to you, I presumed its fanciful take on martial arts would be insulting.
I didn’t watch it as a documentary. I watched it as entertainment, as a promotion of the name Wing Chun. Of course in the movie they turn Wing Chun into a superpower, one man can fight a thousand people. But movie-goers want to see a lot of action going on in the screen. Also in the action they incorporated a lot of, well, they at least introduced some basic Wing Chun theories and curriculum to the general public.
What were some of those theories the movie used?
Most martial arts emphasize body structure. Wing Chun emphasizes a few components. We learn how to generate power, not using too much muscle strength, but overall body structure. Using a muscle group to applying the techniques as opposed to a small muscle group so the power would be greater. When we apply techniques the power comes not only from our muscles but from the ground through our structure. We also apply a lot of circle theories. We apply circular motions, when we punch we twist our fists, twist our arms, in circular motions. So there are scientific theories behind our Wing Chun system.
Culturally, he was very positive and always did his best to overcome hardships. This is the spirit of martial arts practice. Not only in training but also in how to deal with everyday living. In the movie [Ip Man] demonstrates what a true martial arts practitioner should be like: very humble, have courtesy, try to help out the community, help society. It’s not easy. In the movie he tries to really balance his responsibility between his family and his social responsibilities. So that is kind of touching, to me.
What kind of myths do you have to dispel when people who watch these movies walk through your doors hoping to become the next Jet Li?
I explain to them that movies and real martial arts training are very different. People usually get excited after they watch a movie, like Ip Man, I’ve heard it a lot. I say, “Why do you want to train?” They say, “I watched Ip Man, it was so cool,” and I always explain that Ip Man brought you to this school but training takes time and hard work. It’s not like after a few weeks you can fight like Donnie Yen on screen. It’s not gonna happen. Training is a long-term commitment, it’s not a short-term thing. I always encourage people to at least give it a shot, see if this is something they are looking for.
How many of those students who come in after watching a movie or playing video games stay to become long-term practitioners?
I would say 20 to 30 percent of them. For every 10 people who watched Ip Man and came to my school, maybe two will stay.
Another challenge for Wing Chun today is mixed martial arts and UFC. Some believe Wing Chun is impractical and talk down on it. What are your thoughts on those criticisms?
I don’t care what one group of people says about martial arts. When you go to different schools, it’s not the style, it’s about what the teachers are going to teach. It depends on the person. A lot of people will say kung-fu is not as practical, but it depends on the situation! How do they know it’s not practical? You can’t just compare an MMA competition in a cage to everyday life situations. Let’s say you get into an elevator or a train, how do we protect ourselves?
Both practices have their own fans. So people really need to pick and choose what they like to do and then they need to discover themselves. It’s not fair for me to say Wing Chun is the best. I think everything is good. If you find a good teacher, if you find something that suits you, it will be the best thing. To me that’s more important.
What does the future of Wing Chun look like? Can its old traditions survive?
I’ve seen a lot of schools, a lot of teachers, change their curriculum into something like MMA. They want to make it modern to fit the general public, because they need to make a living. But to me an apple is still an apple. You can’t try to make an apple an orange. We really need to focus on what makes [Wing Chun unique]. In our Wing Chun system we focus how to improve the techniques based on original Wing Chun principles. But we’re not going to do Wing Chun moves and then suddenly do a Muay Thai kick or a boxing punch.
The idea of our Wing Chun is it’s always a Wing Ching philosophy, but how can we use modern methods to introduce this to the general public? So myself, I am pursuing a master’s degree at Columbia University to learn how to apply physical education theories and motor-learning theories into Wing Chun. A lot of schools still apply the old theories, but they don’t work well in modern society. I think traditional martial arts teachers should teach martial arts as an education and design a better curriculum by breaking down traditional practice and techniques and introduce these to students using scientific theories and facts.
What does Ip Man’s legacy look like to you?
I think the Ip Man movies are just fiction. But I think it’s great they created a hero in our system. Ip Man, to me, he actually introduced martial arts. Back in the day Wing Chun practice was prohibited in China. When Wing Chun was brought to Hong Kong, because Hong Kong was more open, a lot of students had a chance to learn from Ip Man and then they moved overseas and that’s how they spread Wing Chun over the world. So I give Ip Man a lot of credit. Now when people come to my school they always talk about Ip Man.