Donny Yen plays Ip Man, the grand master martial artist who I guess was the first to openly teach the Wing Chun style of kung fu. If you’ve heard of him it’s probaly because he was Bruce Lee’s Wing Chun master, although that’s only mentioned in the text at the end of the movie.
Like Ronny Yu’s JET LI’S FEARLESS, IP MAN is a prestige martial arts picture, a fictionalized take on a historical figure, a beautifully shot period piece (in this case the ’30s) mixing drama and inspirational nationalism with topnotch martial arts choreography. The look is a little more timeless than FEARLESS though – I didn’t notice any digital shots, and only a couple wire-assisted moves.
What makes the movie stand out is Yen’s portrayal of Ip Man, who doesn’t seem at all like your usual martial arts badass. Yes, he he happens to be one of the best fighters anybody’s ever seen, but he’s very modest about it. He lives in a neighborhood full of martial arts clubs and people constantly ask him to be their master, but he’s not interested in teaching. He’s rich (we’re never told why) and lives in a huge mansion with his wife and young son, where he spends his time quietly sipping tea, reading, practicing Wing Chun. (Is that what’s going on in those gated communities? I never realized that.)
In the opening scene another master challenges Ip Man to a private duel – they shut the doors and Ip provides an ass-handing service, and is horrified later when he finds out one of the neighbors spied on him and told everybody what happened. He doesn’t want to embarrass anybody. Off the top of my head I can’t think of another movie badass who cares so much about the feelings of the people he defeats.
There’s kind of a conflict with his beautiful wife, who thinks he spends too much time on martial arts and not enough with his son. So when a group of bullies (led by the star of THE STORY OF RICKY O) comes into town and beats up all the martial arts masters, he declines to duel him to restore the honor of the town. Or at least he tries to decline, but the guy talks so much shit that Ip’s wife gets pissed, says, “Don’t break my things,” and leaves the room. The story and the fights are very interwoven. During the fight Ip freezes in horror when a vase gets broken, and the guy promises to pay for it. (I don’t think he ever does.)
In 1937 Japan occupies China, and things get bad real fast. It might bother some people that the movie chooses to skip over what would be major scenes in a traditional Hollywood biopic, but I thought it was an interesting choice. A montage and some titles tell us about the war and that the Japanese army confiscated Ip’s estate as their headquarters, so all the sudden he’s living in poverty and has to get a job shoveling coal. He’s never really worked in his life but he’ll do what he has to to feed his family, and now he believes that martial arts were a waste of his time. Of course, he will find use for them – training the crew at his mill to protect themselves from thieves, defending his wife from soldiers and ultimately inspiring his countrymen in a public duel against a Japanese general.
The drama is more prominent and effective than in most martial arts movies, but not enough that you could remove the fights and still have a great movie. What makes this really enjoyable is some excellent fights choreographed by Sammo Hung. Yen apparently had to learn the Wing Chun style and did some real method fighting, staying in character 24-7, eating one meal a day, etc. There’s some good weapon fighting, the best being when he uses a long bamboo pole to keep two guys from getting anywhere near him.
The story isn’t as epic as FEARLESS – it only focuses on a short period of Ip Man’s life – and I liked the character enough that when it got to the closing text saying that he became Bruce Lee’s teacher I said, “now they should make THAT movie.” Sure enough my trusty internet tells me that they are planning another one with an as yet undecided fighter to play Bruce Lee as a major character in the movie. We’ll see how that goes.