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Ip Man

Dir: Wilson Yip

Rating: 3.4/5.0

Well Go USA/Variance Films

106 Minutes

Part kung-fu biopic, part anti-Japanese propaganda film, Wilson Yip’s Ip Man stars Donnie Yen as the titular Wing Chun master that defied his foreign oppressors and lived to become world famous as the teacher of action legend Bruce Lee. Taking place in China’s Foshan province during the mid-to-late 1930s, Ip Man is a fun martial arts flick that, while low in factual accuracy and psychological realism, is high in well-staged fight scenes and the kind of quasi-historical mythmaking that the Hong Kong film industry has excelled in for years.

Ip Man (a name, not a superhero title,) lives a life of privilege and ease with his wife and young son in Foshan, an area well-known for its kung-fu, which its citizens treat more as a hobby and less as a means of defense. Competing schools practice in the town square while Ip is happy to drink tea with his brother and friends, secure in the knowledge that he is the best martial artist around. Every so often challengers come knocking on his door, either politely, like the new master in town, Liao (Chen Zhi Hui) or imperiously, as the leader of a roving band of kung-fu toughs, Jin (Siu-Wong Fan) does when he rudely challenges Ip to a duel in front of his family. The fight that ensues is a good example of the film’s strengths, as action director Sammo Hung and choreographer Leung Sin-hung provide a fine example of the art of fight scene staging. With ample use of slo-motion and minimal wire work, the scene is well-shot and paced, dramatic and comedic in turns (Ip at one point forced to face his opponent’s sword with an ostrich feather), and at no time is the audience confused as to the room’s geography or of the combatants’ relative positions within it. Donnie Yen’s acting and fighting styles are one – upright and stoic, he brings a sense of gentle grace and moral correctness to everything he does. Yen is Ip Man’s greatest asset, and without his performance the film would not have worked nearly as well as it does.

The action jumps forward two years to 1937 and everything changes. Japan invades China, decimating the population of Foshan and reducing its people to a life of servitude and squalor. Ip’s home is commandeered by the Japanese army and he is forced to work in a coal refinery in order to provide for his family. Ip’s brother Quan (Simon Yam) is still barely operating his cotton factory but is threatened by the return of Jin and his marauding band of thieves. Ip breaks his vow never to become a teacher and trains his brother’s staff in the art of Wing Chun. The inevitable melee is both silly and inspiring, old women and children defiantly standing down their fierce attackers. More silly than inspiring, actually, as reality is thrown completely out the window here. But still – it’s a fun scene with lots of energetic action that propels the story forward.

The big baddie of the movie is Japanese General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), who plucks the remaining Wing Chun masters from their hardscrabble existence, offering them a chance to earn sacks of rice by fighting nameless Karate shock troopers in his shadowy dojo. After Ip’s friend Lin (Yu Xing) is killed, Master Ip finally decides to stand up for his country’s honor by facing down the dastardly General in man-to-man combat. The finale of the movie is another rousing scene of martial arts prowess, as the humble Chinese Wing Chun master battles courageously against the evil Japanese Karate champion for his nation’s honor. It’s ridiculous and infantile, propaganda at its most crude, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. Which is the overriding sense you get throughout the film – despite its wartime setting, Ip Man is not a serious portrayal of an historical figure. It’s a fun martial arts movie with some serious elements thrown in, playing fast and loose with historical accuracy to focus in on the kung-fu action. Donnie Yen is terrific in the role, embodying the Chinese ideal of physical prowess and Confucian nobility, and he’s the main reason you should watch. Everything around him is slight and flimsy, but Yen is solid enough to ground the film nicely.

by Shannon Gramas

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