The bio-pic is not a genre generally known for its heart pounding action or breath taking fight choreography, but all that is about to change with the arrival of the Chinese mini-epic, “Ip Man.”
The title is actually an anglicism of the name of the film’s subject, Wing Chun master, Yip Man, best known in these parts as Bruce Lee’s martial arts master. And while the film no doubt takes some liberties in telling the story of how he came to be the first person to openly teach Wing Chun, “Ip Man” still manages to strike an even and compelling balance between jaw-dropping action and heart-wrenching drama.
The film opens in 1935, in the city of Fo Shan, a prosperous area that became renowned for martial arts. At this time Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is a wealthy gentleman of leisure, using his ample spare time to perfect his practice of Wing Chun, a particularly balletic branch of kung fu focused on close range combat. In fact, Ip Man has become so good that he has to endure a near daily barrage of would-be challengers right at the doorstep of his palatial home, much to the consternation of his pretty young wife. Yet, despite these interruptions and the subsequent guilt trips from his wife who would rather he spent more time with his son, Ip is consistently jovial and good natured, traits that only further his reputation as a hero in the town.
All this changes, of course, with the invasion of China by the Japanese in 1938. Ip and his family are ousted from their home and Ip is forced to take a job shoveling coal, something he again does with quiet dignity and humility. However, the Japanese General stationed in Fo Shan happens to be a martial arts enthusiast who stages tournaments in his barracks in exchange for rice. When one of Ip’s friends fails to return from one of these tournaments, Ip agrees to compete in an attempt to discover what happened to his friend, setting the stage for a confrontation where Ip must not only defend his own honor, but that of his entire country.
Although obviously largely shot on a sound stage, director Wilson Yip does a good job of stretching his budget to produce a truly epic feeling. In fact, the staginess of the first act is somewhat reminiscent of the Hollywood studio epics of the 1930’s. This actually lends a comforting feeling of familiarity to the proceedings, which in turn gives the second and third acts added grit. The pacing is also expertly handled, and the lead up to the inevitable final tournament is dragged out just long enough for it to really mean something emotionally.
Also strong is Donnie Yen as Ip. While the real star is obviously the martial arts action and Yen’s fists and feet are breathtakingly precise, his restrained portrayal of Master Ip is extremely touching and sympathetic. This is obviously a role of a life time and Yen certainly makes the most of it, creating a character the audience wants to root for while at the same time honoring the memory of a man considered a hero by many.
Which brings us to the fights, choreographed by martial arts star Sammo Hung and supervised by veteran stunt coordinator Tony Leung Siu-Hung. Quite simply, they are amazing. The intricacy and speed on display is breath-taking and the fact that they appear in the context of real-life events only makes them that more impressive. Instead of relying on cheap wire-work or elaborate set-pieces, the fighting is just plain oldtime, man-on-man action and easily some of the most impressive kung fun on film in years.
The only real missteps are the somewhat cartoonish portrayal of the Japanese as squinty-eyed sadists and some rather distracting camera work. Being that the action sequences are so eye-popping and exciting, it’s possible Yip decided that incessant zooms and crane shots were necessary to keep the audience’s attention, but they’re really unnecessary and come off as amateurish.
And despite playing somewhat fast and loose with historical accuracy, the film is really just a more modern version of the old Shaw Brothers epics, action-packed movies about martial arts heroes from centuries ago. Not surprisingly, there is a sequel in the works, focusing on Ip’s friendship with the immortal Bruce Lee.