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Given the huge success of “Ip Man”, it was inevitable that audiences would soon be hit not only by an official sequel, but by all manner of spinoffs. And so, fast on the heels of “Ip Man 2” comes “The Legend is Born – Ip Man”, a prequel charting the early years of the Wing Chun grandmaster to be. Thankfully, the reins were handed to Herman Yau, surely one of Hong Kong’s best and most underappreciated directors, known for consistently churning out works of quality. Although the idea of an Ip Man film without the inimitable Donnie Yen may be cause for concern, stepping into his shoes is the talented To Yue Hong, the youngest ever martial arts champion from Hong Kong. Backing him are a returning Sammo Hung and Fan Siu Wong, along with franchise newcomers Yuen Biao, Huang Yi, Bernice Liu, Rose Chan, Xu Jiao, and the ever reliable Lam Suet. Of special note is the fact that Ip Man’s real life son, the now 86 year old Ip Chun also makes an appearance, and in a fitting twist even gets to play his own father’s master.
The film follows Ip Man (To Yue Hong) during his childhood years in Foshan, as he and his adopted brother Ip Tin Chi (Fan Siu Wong) are trained in Wing Chun by Master Chan Wah Shun (Sammo Hung), and then by Ng Chung So (Yuen Biao) after he dies. Although Lee Mei Wai (Rose Chan) takes a shine to Ip Man, he only has eyes for the deputy mayor’s daughter Cheung Wing Shing (Huang Yi), destined to be his future wife. After leaving to attend school in Hong Kong, Ip Man meets and is mentored by Leung Bik (Ip Chun), formerly of Wing Chun, who teaches him an unorthodox version of the style. When he returns to Foshan, his new techniques greatly anger Ng Chung So, who still blames Leung Bik for causing a painful split in the school. However, personal differences soon have to be put aside, as the nation is threatened by an evil Japanese plot and the presence of a mysterious traitor in their midst.
If there’s one director viewers should trust with an “Ip Man” prequel, it’s Herman Yau. A great storyteller, he shows his usual engaging efficiency, and the film works well as an interesting mini biopic, moving quickly and without too much melodrama or fuss through the various stages of Ip Man’s young life. As such, although nothing new is really learned about his character, the film doesn’t feel too unnecessary, providing a neat first chapter as well as a few pointers as to how he developed his martial arts style. A lot of the film’s themes are instantly recognisable from its bigger brothers, as Ip Man comes across rude (and badly acted) Westerners, bullies, and wicked Japanese villains, though Yau avoids throwing in too much obvious nationalism, and the film benefits from being a leaner and less flag waving affair.
Of course, the big question was always going to be how the film would get around the absence of Donnie Yen, and the prequel approach does at least justify having another actor in the role which he so effectively made his own. Whilst not as charismatic as the one and only Yen, To Yue Hong does a very decent job as the young Ip, not least since he bears a notable resemblance to him. For the most part he manages to exude the same air of righteousness and pulls off all the right poses, and this gives the film a reasonable sense of continuity, making it feel less like a cash-in. Although Sammo Hung doesn’t appear for long, his presence, along with that of Yuen Biao similarly add a touch of genre legitimacy, and both fit very comfortably into their older master roles.
To Yue Hong also shows himself to have the requisite skills, being fast and fleet, and Yau gives him plenty of chances to show off his talents. The film is pretty action packed, with an impressive number of well handled duel scenes scattered throughout, as well as the expected training montages, all of which have a nicely old school, CGI-free feel, thanks in part to some good production values. As the Japanese plot takes centre stage during the last half hour or so, the film really picks up pace and gets more exciting, building to a rousing final series of battles as Ip Man takes on a horde of ninja opponents – thankfully without pausing to give a length pro-China speech.
Though perhaps inevitably it will be seen as the poorer cousin of the original and sequel, “The Legend is Born – Ip Man”, with the ever dependable Yau at the helm it holds its own and in no way disgraces the series. A great martial arts film in its own right that is more enjoyable than a lot of the more bloated big budget genre epics of late, it also provides a good introduction to To Yue Hong, who will hopefully be showing up more on screens in the future.
Herman Yau (director) / Erica Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Ip Chun … Leung Bik
Andy Taylor … Gwai Lo
Yu-Hang To … Ip Man
Biao Yuen … Ng Chung-sok