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Who is Ip Man? For you contemporary types, he’s most famous for teaching some scrawny Chinese kid name Bruce Lee the secrets of whupping ass. But that’s the old guy. According to Wilson Yip’s movie, the younger Ip Man made his bones during the days of Japanese-occupied China, where he suffered at the hands of the Imperial thugs as World War II looms over the horizon. Call it circa 1930s, give or take. It’s here that Ip Man, the master of Wing Chun, proves his mettle by essentially beating the living bejesus out of everyone who thinks they’re tough enough to withstand his fists of fury. Much like Jet Li’s character in “Fearless”, “Ip Man” (aka “Grandmaster Ip Man”) became a must see the instant Donnie Yen was attached as star. Want ass kicking on a grand scale? You’ve come to the right place, my friend. Sit back, grab a beer, and put the old lady to bed. This is Man Time. Ip Man time! Ahem.
Just how awesome is Ip Man’s martial arts skills? Let’s put it this way: He can punch you in the face 50 times before you even realized someone is punching you in the face. Once the punching is out of the way, he’s liable to take your lunch money, kick your dog, throw your grandmamma out the window, and just for kicks, romance your girlfriend. Yeah, he’s that awesome. Although Ip Man spends most of his waking life practicing his martial arts skills (it’s nice to be rich), curiously he wants no part of showing off his skills in public, preferring instead to keep his fighting behind closed doors. Also, his wife (Lynn Xiong) is not exactly thrilled that whenever Ip Man thoroughly wipes the floor with yet another opponent, people keep crowding her home asking her husband to be their master. All of this makes for a strange background for the greatest ass whupper of all time. (I looked it up. Chuck Norris came in a close second. Third was a tie between that guy from “Gladiator” and Sandra Bullock in “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous.”)
“Ip Man” is actually a light-hearted action film up until the 35-minute mark, when all the fun and games disappear with the entrance of the Japanese Imperial Army and the Sino-Japanese War, aka that thing with the Japanese in Asia before they made the big mistake of bombing Pearl Harbor. You see, like their buddies the Nazis, the Japanese of the 1930s were of the “We’re the Asian master race” mindset. With the conquest of China, our hero goes from hero to zero, surviving on laborer wages and digging for coal in order to keep his family alive and eating. The film’s villain comes in the form of the local Japanese General (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), who decides he wants to impress upon the Chinese people the power of Japanese superiority by challenging them to duels, with the price of victory being a bag of much-coveted rice. What’s a man to do? Well if that man is Ip Man, it’s take the abuse for as long as he can, until he can no longer. Plus, who does this Japanese General think he is? What is he, 20 years old? I didn’t know Japan made Generals out of High School kids back in World War II. Geez, no wonder they lost the war…
Just as Jet Li seemed tailor made for “Fearless”, so too does Donnie Yen with “Ip Man”. The two films share much in common, including the fact that once “Ip Man” finishes it Asian run, someone with half a brain (and preferably not named Weinstein) will snap up the International distribution rights and start selling it across Europe and the States. By then, we can only hope the film doesn’t get re-titled into something ridiculous. If they want my opinion (and really, who doesn’t?), they should just call the movie “Watch Donnie Yen beat the living crap out of everyone”, because frankly, that’s what this movie is about and its main selling point. The story is nothing special, it’s your usual Chinese affair – Big Bad Japanese Men push around and belittle the Chinese populace until someone rises up to challenge that superiority complex they keep insisting on. Bruce Lee did it in “The Chinese Connection”, Jet Li did it again in “Fist of Legend”, and now Donnie Yen takes his turn in “Ip Man”.
Being a biopic, of course the main focus is on Ip Man (also spelled Yip Man), although there are a couple of other interesting characters that get screen time. Most notably, there is a Chinese cop turned Japanese translator (and perceived traitor) played by Ka Tung Lam, who probably has the film’s deepest character arc. There is a fine line between traitor and survivor, especially during war-time occupations, and Lam proves himself the film’s best actor with his performance. Hong Kong mainstay Simon Yam is Ip Man’s best friend, a factory owner who happens to have a thing for hand cream. Really, the amount of cream this guy goes through is ridiculous. Chinese model turned actress Lynn Xiong doesn’t have a whole lot to do as Ip Man’s wife, and much of the character’s usefulness comes early on as she humorously attempt to curb Ip Man’s obsessive martial arts regiment and the constant duels he entertains at their house. It’s not much of a role, but at least she looks good doing it. As the villain, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi as the much-too-young looking general would have made a better villainous Captain, although his trigger happy right-hand man is so over the top evil that it borders on the absurd.
Unless you’ve been daydreaming while reading this brilliant review of “Ip Man”, let me say it again: go for the ass kicking, stay for even more ass kicking. Donnie Yen is in fine form, as we all knew he would be when we heard he was going to play the titular character. How could you have a movie with such great martial arts pedigree, add Yen as the lead, and not have a martial arts junkie’s delight? Answer: you don’t. Director Wilson Yip gets credit for setting the mood and letting the star do his thing, something Yip has made a career of, counting amongst his more notable action movies “SPL”, “Dragon Tiger Gate”, and “Flash Point”. All three films, not coincidentally, also starred Yen. Wilson Yip tells the cameraman where to place the camera, but Donnie Yen tells them where they need to stand as he kicks them in the face. Hey, it’s worked so far, so why mess with a good thing?
As a bio pic of the real man, “Ip Man” the movie is clearly working under the auspice of “creative license for the sake of entertainment.” The film glosses over a number of historical truths about the real man, most notably that he was a cop in his hometown of Foshan before and after the war. It’s actually kind of strange why the film elects to ignore this, since one would assume sticking true to history would have provided more excuses for Yen to punch people in the face instead of fighters just showing up at his doorsteps demanding a duel. But I suppose the idea the filmmakers were going for seems to be to concentrate more on his family life and his lack of wanting to beat people up. It’s this “zen-ness”, if you will, that contributes to the man’s overall character as he goes from a rich aristocrat who believes himself useless without his fists, to realizing that yeah, being able to punch guys 50 times in the face really fast actually is a skill people can appreciate. That is, if you’re not one of the guys he’s punching 50 times in the face really fast, anyway.
It remains to be seen if “Ip Man” will see the same kind of international success on par with Jet Li’s “Fearless”. The two films certainly have enough in common, from their period epic feel to the abundant martial arts (with “Fearless” being more wirefu heavy than “Ip Man” as far as I can tell), although of the two stars, Yen doesn’t have Li’s name recognition. After all, even a barely seen Hollywood movie gets seen by more people in a year than, say, a major hit from Hong Kong in its lifetime. Still, I can see the distributors selling “Ip Man” as “in the vein of ‘Fearless’, comes … ‘Ip Man!’” And yeah, don’t be surprised if they change the title by slapping “Legend” somewhere in there, as international distributors are wont to do. But nevermind “Fearless” and Jet Li. As its own movie, Donnie Yen kicks ass on such a grand scale in “Ip Man” that it will be hard for him to top it. But you know what? It sure will be fun to see him try. I hear they’re already casting the role of Bruce Lee for the sequel…
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
Lynn Xiong … Ip Man’s Wife
Hiroyuki Ikeuchi … Miura