Ip Man is loosely based on the life of Ip Man, said to be the first master to openly teach wing chun. He is also notable as one of Bruce Lee’s first mentors. The film takes a number of liberties with the life of the martial arts legend. I am not nearly well versed enough to speak to these liberties, but when you look up some of the stories of the real man’s life, they paint a different picture than the film does. With that said, the film appears to focus on idealizing the man — after all it does say “inspired by” and not “based on.” I am sure similar things can be said for the many films based on another martial arts master and Chinese legend, Wong Fei-hung.
The movie centers on Ip Man’s life in the late 1930s and early 1940s, a period that begins just prior to and ends during the Second Sino-Japanese War. It is a time of great prosperity that leads into great poverty. We follow Ip Man and his family as they struggle to scratch out a life. It is a time that sees the martial arts master re-evaluating his priorities while never losing his pride. It is an interesting story that is as much about the incredible fight sequences as it is about the man’s journey.
The scene opens on the center of Fo Shan, a city known for its martial arts schools. The students and masters have all gathered for a celebration. We spend very little time here before the scene shifts to Ip Man who is at home with his wife and young son. We are introduced to a man who is gentlemanly, polite, and very serious about his martial arts. This leads directly into the first fight, a demonstration between himself and another master looking to open a school. It is a fast-paced duel which beautifully demonstrates the skills of Ip Man and the man playing him, Donnie Yen (Iron Monkey, Blade:Trinity).
Much like other martial arts films I have seen, a man who clearly acts like a bad guy arrives in town. His name is Jin and he quickly sets about beating on the Fo Shan masters to demonstrate his strength. He desires to open a school. His desire and mission lead to another Ip Man duel.
The opening half hour or so is set in the time just prior to the Japanese invasion and subsequent occupation. It is a happy time where martial arts were the highlight of Fo Shan and the people lived happily, practicing their styles and engaging in duels. Ip Man is a well-respected master who did not teach all that often. He is also seen as a man who perhaps focuses a bit too much on his martial arts at the neglect of his family.
Then the invasion occurs and the entire look of the film changes. The bright colors and decorations are replaced with rubbles and a graying of the color palette as the Chinese people are stricken with poverty under the harsh fist of the Japanese.
Ip Man and his family are left homeless. They do their best to scrape by, with Ip Man taking a job at what I believe is a coal mine. This leads into his direct confrontation with the Japanese, led here by General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi). He is a practitioner of karate and offers rice to the Chinese kung fu masters who can defeat his men in a match. Miura is not a nice man and his right hand man is a rather sadistic fellow who likes to shoot first and ask questions later.
I really do not wish to go on describing the film. You really just need to see it for yourself. I will admit that it is not necessarily the deepest film I have ever seen, but there is still a good deal of substance to dig out. It is a finely crafted film that succeeds in the performances, story, action, cinematography, music, you name it. Is it the sort of movie that is going to change lives? No, there aren’t very many of those, but it excels on so many levels.
Donnie Yen plays the titular role and gives one of the best performances I have seen from him; granted my sample is limited but that is no slight on him here. He carries himself well, proud, respectful, doing what needs to be done, and only fighting when he feels he has to. I love the work he does when he first meets the Japanese general, there is such anger and sadness brewing below the surface that continues on for much of the rest of the film. Playing opposite him is Xiong Dailin as Mans wife. She does not have a great amount of screen time but she makes her presence known. I particularly liked her ‘stand up and cheer’ moment early on in the moments leading to Ip Man’s duel with Jin. Seriously, though, all of the performances are good.
At its heart this is a martial arts film and a martial arts film is only as good as the quality of its fight scenes. They are quite phenomenal here. Martial arts great Sammo Hung shows once again the extent of his abilities as a fight choreographer. The fights are very good, thrilling, and fresh. We get extended fight sequences with Ip Man dueling the master at the start, the fight with Jin, Ip Man taking on ten black belts, and more, including a few that don’t involve Ip Man. The fights are so good that you will want to revisit them individually.
Wilson Yip was in the director’s chair for the film and does a fine job of moving us along. He brings style to the proceedings with his dynamic shooting of the fights and the drama that builds throughout the story. Along with director of photography Sing-Pui O, Wilson Yip has placed a distinctive stamp on the historical martial arts drama. We see the influence of the West in some of the clothing choices and in the presence of guns and their influence on society.
Audio/Video. This DVD delivers a solid presentation of the film. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The detail is quite good through both looks of the film. The first third of the film features good lighting, bright colors, and an atmosphere that is upbeat and representative of prosperous times. The remainder of the film sees the color drained out, leaving a gray palette to represent the poverty under Japanese rule. The level of detail remains quite good. It is a fine looking film.
Audio is presented in both the original Chinese (I believe it is Cantonese, but I am not sure) and an English dub. Clearly the best way to watch the film is with the original language track, but I also found myself using the dub track to watch the frame a little more while keeping up with the story. Both tracks do a fine job of delivering clear dialogue and doing fine justice to Kenji Kawai’s fine musical score. Also, you will notice that, like most martial arts films, strike sounds during the fights are amped up and considerably louder than the rest of the film.
Extras. This Collector’s Edition DVD release comes with a number of bonus features.
- Making of. This 18-minute featurette features behind the scenes footage and interviews with all of the primary players. Interesting notes include getting to see Sammo Hung working on set, Donnie Yen having to train in wing chun, which was new to him, and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi having never done a fight scene before.
- Deleted Scenes. Three brief scenes are included. They are of little consequence.
- Trailers. The original and American trailers.
- Shooting Diaries. This is a brief 5.5-minute montage of clips from and around the shoot. I like it, but nothing particularly special.
- Behind the Sets. This takes onto the Cotton Mill, the Streets of Fo Shan, and Ip’s Residence. The clips are brief, but it is interesting to see what went into creating these sets and the efforts to make them authentic.
- Interviews. This is a series of interviews with all of the main performers as well as director Wilson Yip, fight choreographer Sammo Hung, and Ip Man’s son Ip Chun. I have not listened to them all but they run roughly 90-minutes with the longest interviews being with Yip and star Donnie Yen.
Bottom line. This really is one of the finest martial arts films I have seen, up there with other recent outings as Fearless and Iron Monkey. The drama and action are there in a package that is as slick as they come. It really is a fantastic film. It is not a lighthearted piece but it has its comedic moments. Once it is over you will want to go back right away and revisit it. Just remember to stop fighting if a little boy on a tricycle rolls through.