“Compelling” is a word that is infrequently used to describe a Kung Fu film. Often you will hear descriptions such as: “lots of fun” or “adrenaline fueled” or ”goofy” or in the best case scenario, a simple “awesome”. Ip Man is that rare bird, in that it not only provides the hard-hitting fight scenes that a Kung Fu fan is expecting, but it also satisfies the deep-seeded need to be intellectually stimulated, allowing it fall into the “compelling” category, if only on a very basic level.
Starting in 1935, the film tells the story, more or less (actually less), of Wing Chun, Master Ip Man (the man who first taught Bruce Lee), and the town of Foshan, Guangdong Province in southern China, where he was born and lived a life of privilege and prosperity. Martial arts clubs were prominent and competition was rare among practitioners. This would all soon end when an invading force from Japan reached southern China in 1938, destroying all but a handful of industrial buildings and killing citizens indiscriminately. With the Japanese subjugating everything and everyone around him, Ip Man must choose whether to fight or flee.
In a biographical situation, such as this, filmmakers are expected to take a bit of license with a character and the circumstances in order to heighten the drama or give a pivotal moment a punch of emphasis. In the case of Ip Man, 95% of the on-screen content is fiction. But in creating that fiction, the players add a dimension to the story and to the character of Ip Man himself that pops off the screen and completely draws you in.
Donnie Yen as Master Ip Man is flawless. Donnie Yen, as a general statement of fact, is flawless. Although he is known for incorporating many styles of combat into his filmed fight scenes that usually involve big jumps, big kicks, and big falls, Donnie embraces the short fast motions of the Wing Chun style and really shows off the power of its aggressive close-range combat. Donnie Yen is widely regarded as one of, if not the fastest on screen fighter in the film industry and that is proven over and over again in the fight scenes in Ip Man.
The fight scenes themselves are very well crafted and fit surprisingly well into the narrative, despite the stark contrast in tone between the somber set pieces and the kinetic combat. This is due in large part to the action director Sammo Hung. A well-respected actor and director from The China Drama Academy, the same Peking Opera school that taught action-film greats Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, Corey Yuen, and many others. Sammo’s choreography is quick, exciting, fearless, and punctuated by the smart, sharp camera work. With the film’s narrative director, Wilson Yip, seamlessly blending the action into his own dramatic scenes, the fights serve as vignettes within the main story, indicating a chapter change and either presenting or finishing off a plot point.
As previously stated, this film does nothing to serve the true nature of Master Ip Man. What it does very well, is use a well-known historical figure and make his experiences into an allegory for something much bigger. In this case, Master Ip Man’s stunning martial arts prowess and adeptness at soundly defeating every Japanese soldier that wanders into his field of vision, represents China’s strength and determination in dealing with the Japanese invaders during the war. This in no way detracts from the story or the overall enjoyment of the film, as it is done so well.
Kung Fu- and drama-film fans alike will find something to write home about in Ip Man. The story is historical and accessible to a wide audience, and played very straight. The comedy, camp, and absurdity that is prevalent in many Chinese allegorical films, such as Drunken Master I and II, and the Once Upon a Time in China series, is absent in Ip Man. Those film are fun to watch, have spectacular action sequences, and many are considered classics in the genre, but it is refreshing to see a film like Ip Man, that doesn’t rely Just on star power or character recognition, but on solid technical filmmaking and a truly compelling story.