“I wish to fight ten men.”
From the Wuxia films of the Shaw Brothers and Ang Lee to the masterful comedy kung fu of Jackie Chan, martial arts films are a vast and all encompassing genre of cinema. My knowledge with Chinese cinema mainly comes from Jackie Chan movies and the Hong Kong gun-fu crime thrillers of John Woo, so I wasn’t too familiar with the story of Ip Man. Like most people I knew about him being the legendary master of Bruce Lee but that was about the extent of my knowledge. But through a desire to learn more about the man, along with my love of action films and Donnie Yen, I decided to check out Wilson Yip’s 2008 biographical action film about Ip Man, coincidentally titled Ip Man. The film dramatises Ip’s life in Foshan during the Second Sino-Japanese War up until his arrival in Hong Kong. ‘Dramatise’ is the key word here, as the authenticity of the events of the Ip Man series are frequently up for debate. Regardless of this, the film and it’s sequels are often thought of as modern martial arts master pieces, let’s find out how true that is.
The eponymous Ip Man himself portrayed by martial arts legend Donnie Yen. Yen is perhaps best known in the West for his villainous turn in the underrated Jackie Chan/Owen Wilson sequel Shanghai Knights. Or depending when you’re reading this, as bad ass warrior monk Chirrut Imwe in Gareth Edwards’ magnificent Star Wars film Rogue One. Outside of Western cinema Yen has forged a career inside Asia as a bankable action star with a reputation for doing some seriously impressive fight scenes (the baton vs. knife fight scene in SPL: Sha Po Lang is possibly his best). It was with Ip Man in 2008 that he really solidified his movie star status though. The film and it’s sequels follow the (increasingly fictionalised) life of martial arts master Ip Man, whose later students included Bruce Lee. Ip Man specifically follows Master Ip during his time in Foshan from the late 30’s to the early 40’s. The film’s first act is practically a light hearted romp as Ip goes about his business in Foshan, schooling fellow martial arts masters and fighting a particularly nasty bunch of outsiders who aim to set up a rival school. The tone shifts in act two however, with a time skip to 1937 and the invasion of China by the Japanese. Ip and his family lose their house and eventually Ip resorts to working at the local coal mine. From the time skip the film becomes less about the funny adventures of the local Wing Chun master and more about Ip Man vs the Japanese invaders. The Japanese have a less than stellar representation here, except perhaps for General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) who is shown as at least being more honourable than his violent and crazed subordinates. The story is good though, and allows Yen to show his talent as a dramatic actor as well as an ass kicking one.
Speaking of ass kicking, Ip Man features multiple fight sequences that are consistently never less than awesome. The best in the film (and arguably of Yen’s whole career) is the showdown between Ip and the 10 blackbelts. The fight choreography is brutal and brilliant, organised to perfection by kung-fu movie veteran Sammo Hung. The fights early on are light and playful, with Ip consciously retraining himself. At this point he doesn’t want to do anyone any damage, not even the violent Northern men who aim to set up a rival school. But after the invasion that all changes. Ip Man tries to stay peaceful, taking up ordinary work where he can. But after seeing a shocking act of cruelty by the Japanese invaders he lets loose, fighting 10 opponents and completely destroying them in the process. He snaps bones and breaks limbs and even sneaks in a few of Master Ip’s signature chain punches. The climatic one-on-one fight between Ip and General Miura is awesome too. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in nationalism as the crowd chants Ip’s name, even if it is a bit extreme. The earlier fight scene, against the outsider and before the invasion, might be softer and more light-hearted than the post-invasion conflicts but the choreography is still stunning.
The performances in Ip Man also deserve a mention. Martial arts films live and die by the action, not the actor’s performances, but it’s still worth noting how great they are. The aforementioned Donnie Yen is stunning as the titular Ip and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi’s General Miura makes for a great and understated villain. The supporting cast excel too, particularly veteran Hong Kong actor Simon Yam as business man and close friend of Ip, Quan. Owner of the local cotton mill, Quan is pretty much Ip’s opposite, but the pair are friends and Donnie Yen and Simon Yam really sell it. Special mention has to go Ka Tung Lam too, who plays the all too real Li. Watching Ip Man, you want to pretend you’d be Ip in these situations. But lets be real, we’d all be Li. Pre-invasion he’s an annoying cop who tries to do his best but no one listens. Post invasion he works as a translator for the Japanese, a role that causes much hatred to be directed towards him, from both sides. He gets beaten up by the Japanese and derided by Ip, but a shot of his home life reveals he’s just trying to make do for him and his family. It’s a wonderful performance by Ka Tung Lam, and possibly the best in the film.
The bottom line: Ip Man is a great martial arts film, and perhaps even the best to come out of China in the last decade or so. The acting is consistently great, especially by Yen and Ka Tung Lam. The action more than delivers too, offering up some of the absolute best fight scenes this side of the millennium. The film is worth watching for the Ip vs 10 blackbelts scene alone. Opinions are divided on whether Ip Man or Ip Man 2 is the best in the Ip Man series, with many claiming 2 is actually the best. And as long as we get Donnie Yen kicking more ass, I’m more than happy to find out if that’s true.