“Ip Man” was arguably the most anticipated film of last year for martial arts fans, not only as it tells the tale of the real life Wing Chun grandmaster and Bruce Lee’s teacher, but as it marks the fourth collaboration between director Wilson Yip and star Donnie Yen. As if this wasn’t enough, the film also boasts fight choreography by the legendary Sammo Hung, and was blessed by Ip Man’s son, who actually worked as a consultant on the film.
In addition, the film features a fine supporting cast, including Simon Yam (who co-starred with Yen in the excellent “SPL”), Gordon Lam (recently in Johnnie To’s pickpocket drama “Sparrow”), and Wong Yau Nam (also in Pang Ho Cheung’s “AV”), making it an exciting prospect, even for those not usually fans of martial arts cinema or historical epics.
The film is set in the 1930s in Foshan, a town well known for its martial arts tradition. Although different schools struggle for supremacy, Ip Man is widely known as the champion, beating not only local masters but also challengers who come from far and wide to test his skills. Despite his talents, he shows great humility, and spends most of his time practicing his Wing Chun style and quietly looking after his wife (Lynn Xiong Dai Ling) and son. Unfortunately everything changes with the brutal Japanese invasion, and Ip Man is forced to work in the local factory. Although he tries to keep out of the spotlight, he soon becomes embroiled in trouble as a cruel Japanese general (played by Ikeuchi Hiroyuki “Karaoke Terror”) sets about challenging all of the local martial artists.
The most obvious comparison for “Ip Man” is with Ronny Yu’s Jet Li vehicle “Fearless”, with both sharing a similar historic setting, themes and indeed plot. Of the two, “Ip Man” is undoubtedly the better film, both as an epic (if perhaps not particularly accurate) historical drama, and as a martial arts thriller. This is largely due to the fact that, although perhaps less well known, for the moment at least, Yip is arguably the better director. Here, he draws upon his recent martial arts experience with the likes of “SPL” and “Flashpoint” and gives the film the same gritty feel. The film certainly benefits from this tough edge, which helps distract from the inherent familiarity of the story, which though gripping is rather predictable, and helps to set it apart not only from its peers, but also from the vast hordes of other historical dramas and costume epic that continue to pour into Chinese cinemas.
Unsurprisingly, the film is a patriotic affair, especially towards the end as the inevitable duel with national pride at stake looms large, with lots of noble speeches and nationalistic sentiment. However, the film does feature some moral complexities, for example with regards to the character of Gordon Lam’s traitorous interpreter, and through the fact that Ip Man spends almost as much of his time fighting against or being betrayed by Northern bandits as he does the Japanese. To be fair, although the plot does play out pretty much as expected, it does so in suitably rousing style, and the film does manage to keep the viewer engaged even outside of the many fight scenes. It’s worth noting that the DVD release also includes a number of very worthwhile deleted scenes that fill in several blanks in the story and clarify the fates of three main characters, making them essential post-film viewing.
Of course, Yen carries the film on his shoulders, and is on great form, showing incredible speed and skill whether taking on one or ten opponents. Yip gives him plenty of chances to really let his fists fly, and the film includes some truly breathtaking scenes and set pieces. The action comes thick and fast, and features some dynamic and exciting fight choreography from Sammo Hung, representing his best work for some years. The film benefits from being brutal and realistic, with plenty of broken bones and flying blood that again give it a hard visceral edge likely to please genre fans. There are several stand out scenes, with the final duel between Yen and Hiroyuki being particularly thrilling.
The film boasts some gorgeous production values, and comes complete with believable sets and a pleasing eye for historic detail. Yip makes the very most of this and the film is visually very impressive, successfully bringing to life both the pre war opulence and the grim devastation of the Japanese invasion. Showing a great use of light and shadow he manages to ground the drama and action, whilst at the same time giving the film a cinematic, though thankfully not needlessly glamorous or artificially polished look.
Yip and Yen obviously work well together, and as a result “Ip Man” comes across as being more in tune with their other recent contemporary-set collaborations rather than other historical martial arts dramas. This is undoubtedly a good thing, and the film works very well on several different levels, providing exciting entertainment and standing as one of the best examples of the genre in recent years.
Wilson Yip (director) / Edmond Wong (screenplay)
CAST: Donnie Yen … Ip Man
Simon Yam … Zhou Qing Quan
Siu-Wong Fan … Jin Shan Zhao
Ka Tung Lam … Li Zhao
Yu Xing … Master Zealot Lin
You-Nam Wong … Shao Dan Yuan
Chen Zhi Hui … Master Liao