Ip Man

Ip Man (葉問)
Made in: Hong Kong
Language: Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese
Director: Wilson Yip
Starring: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Lynn Hung, Lam Ka-Tung, Chen Zhihui, Fan Siu-Wong, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Shibuya Tenma
Year: 2008

Synopsis: This action movie takes place in the 1930s, and is loosely based on the life of master Ip Man (played by Donnie Yen), who specializes in a form of Kung Fu known as Wing Chun. He would later become the mentor of the legendary Bruce Lee.

The master lives in the city of Fo Shan, which is in China's Canton province in the south. Martial arts is all the rage there, and kung fu schools are located all throughout the downtown area. According to this movie, kung fu studios back then were as common as Starbucks coffee shops are today.

Soft spoken, modest, and generally easy-going, Master Ip Man is very well off and lives in a nice mansion with his dutiful wife, Chen (Lynn Hung) and little son Ip Chun (Li Chak). And although he's the best martial arts master in town, he never brags about it. Neither does he have an official school nor does he have any desire to teach.

But his passion for Wing Chun, and the frequent time spent practicing (and sometimes kicking the butts of occasional challengers), is often a point of conflict with his wife because she doesn't think he spends enough time with his kid.

But when the Imperial Japanese Army invades during the second Sino-Japanese war, Ip Man's seemingly perfect life gets turned upside-down. His glorious mansion gets confiscated along with all his property, and like many of Fo Shan's other citizens, he's forced to relocate to a slum. Struggling to scrape together a living, he tries to find whatever work he can.

At this time Fo Shan comes under the authority of Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a Japanese General and Karate expert. So confident of the superiority of Imperial Japan, he organizes hand-to-hand fighting tournaments between his military trainees and the local Chinese Kung Fu experts. As an incentive for local participation, he offers a bag of rice for every participant who defeats one of his karatekas.

Ip Man takes no interest in this spectacle at first, but the brutality of the occupiers eventually wears away his patience. With his countrymen and family facing greater threats each day, he finally reaches a breaking point (which is where the fun begins for the viewer).

The Good: Ip Man is an exciting, solid kung fu movie that does a great job balancing story exposition, drama, humor, and of course, stunning fight sequences.

The stunt work and fight choreography is as top-notch as anything you've seen in any other classic martial arts film. But what makes this one memorable is the way in which the story's told.

Genuine effort is made in getting you to connect emotionally with the characters. And Hiroyuki Ikeuchi plays a great villain. General Miura is portrayed as a complex, human antagonist instead of a 2-dimensional, cartoonish bully that have populated previous films of the same genre.

There's a lot of emotion on the part of the characters, but none of it is melodramatic and goofy (also a flaw of previous martial arts movies). In a previous review of a Donnie Yen movie, I wrote that he doesn't seem to be an actor with a broad emotional range. In Ip Man, I noticed that he carries a consistent, serious expression that can be interpreted as contemplative, focused, enraged (but struggling to hide it), or slightly befuddled.

Normally, this would be an excuse to poke fun at an actor. But whether intentional or not, director Wilson Yip seems to have the ability to take that single expression and assign all kinds of emotions to it depending on the circumstance. I'm still undecided if Donnie Yen is either indeed a monotone actor, or if he's adept at accurately projecting emotional nuances. Whether on his own or through good direction, his performance here is very good.

The Bad: Although Ip Man is a biopic, major (and I mean major) artistic liberties were taken. Much of the dueling that we see never actually happened. Also, the real Master Ip Man was a known opium addict who, according to my research, was more preoccupied with building up his stash than caring about what the Japanese were up to.

I suppose there was a real opportunity here to make the first genuine Chinese kung-fu stoner movie (which could have ended up being a whole different kind of classic), but sadly it was missed.

Who would like this film: Ip Man is for you if you want to enjoy a kung fu action movie with more sophistication and higher-budgeted production values.

Thematically it contains messages common in previous Chinese martial arts movies, such as the importance of humility, patriotism, and the fact that karate will never be better than kung fu.

Donnie Yen is in top form with this one. The story is solid, the characters are vivid, and the stunt choreography definitely delivers. Just push the factual inaccuracies out of your mind and enjoy it for what it is.

(3 and 1/2 stars out of 4)

Review written by: Joe Yang

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