There is one point in the martial arts movie Ip Man in which an angry and combative opponent mocks the titular hero for practicing a style of martial arts called the Wing Chun Fist that was originally invented by a woman. I wonder if the character knew the rest of the story. There have been various tales and legends debated over the years about the origin of the Wing Chun but the most widely told and accepted states that a woman named Yim Wing Chun invented it as a response to a man who tried to force her into marriage. He challenged that he would accept her refusal to marry him if she could beat him. She quickly went to a Buddhist nun, learned to fight and invented her own boxing style to defeat the coercive man.
The title character, Grandmaster Ip Man, before becoming one of the most prominent proponents of Wing Chun as well as the famed teacher of the late Bruce Lee, faced an even greater conflict and threat of subjugation in the Sino-Japanese War of 1937 and Wilson Yip's fictionalized account of his life is a worthy addition to the old wushu epics based on a real-life Chinese hero that crosses biography with a bit of lionized folklore. That trend seemed to have diminished in the face of overdone stylizations of martial arts such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers (both directed by Zhang Yimou). But I, for one, have always preferred the more traditional genre films that just let the martial arts form speak for itself such as the Once Upon a Time in China films and the recent Fearless, and Ip Man is one of the most rousing to come along in a while.
Like the hero in Jet Li's Fearless, Ip Man (Donnie Yen, in a career highlight performance) is already a proficient and virtually unbeatable martial artist, although he does not display the boastful arrogance in the beginning that propelled Huo from Fearless to seek out fights to test his might. The fights rather come to him as, in the opening scenes, masters from other martial arts schools constantly come to challenge him as he is rumored to be the best martial artist of Foshan, a town that has a historical reputation for breeding highly trained wushu experts. Although he himself deliberately chooses not to open a martial arts school despite the urging of his businessman friend, Zhou Qing Quan (Simon Yam) to take his son as a disciple, the repeated challenges that come to Ip's door annoy his wife (Lynn Xiong) who thinks he is too carried away with his fighting and training to pay attention to his family.
Thus, when a group of cocky out-of-town folks believe they can trample on the reputation of Foshan by beating all the martial artists, of course they will eventually land on Ip's doorstep as well. That sets up a terrific, prolonged fight sequence that shows the countless, lightning-quick punches Ip can land on his opponent's face and chest in the blink of an eye and how he uses merely the stick of a window duster to defeat an opponent with a large sword. When he wins the battle, the whole town including the local cop, Li Zhao (Ka Tung Lam), praises him as a hero.
All of that fills the generally lighthearted half hour of the movie but it turns out to actually be a setup for the sudden transition into the darker historical event of Japanese military occupation during WWII. Information in captions reveal the town's population is decimated by three-quarters by the Japanese soldiers, thriving factories are destroyed, and the remaining people's properties are confiscated, including that of Ip, who is forced into abject poverty and must look for menial labor to barely feed his wife and son. He finally swallows his pride to work at the coal mines despite not having the right clothes to wear for the job (echoes here of Russell Crowe’s Jim Braddock during the Great Depression from Cinderella Man).
One day Li, who is now working as an interpreter for Japanese soldiers, comes to the coal mine to try to recruit any Chinese people to challenge and fight students of a Japanese martial arts training school in order to win bags of rice. Ip is initially uninterested in this but a tragedy that hits close to home shakes up his personal patriotism and hence he goes to the training school himself, which sets up a far fiercer fight sequence where he challenges ten Japanese students and shows his fearsome and bone-crunching might and a style of punching for which the word “swift” is a severe understatement. This, of course, grabs the attention of the head Japanese General Miura (Hiroyuki Heichi) and his sadistic guard, Sato (Shibuya Tenma), and embroils Ip in progressively greater conflict even though he quietly tries to work in the small fabric factory mill his friend Zhou has just started.
This kind of general story outline will be familiar to fans of the martial arts genre whose films such as Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury and Jet Li’s Fist of Legend are very often propelled by the feeling of Chinese nationalistic pride and no wonder considering the endless tyrannical savagery that the Japanese people inflicted throughout Chinese history. The visual palette by cinematographer Sing-Pui O reflects that when, once the occupation starts, it switches to a grayer, ashen-like color scheme that suggests the town Ip Man is in has become almost like a tomb both physically and mentally. Some people starve to death when unable to scrape a meager living and others who cannot find jobs become bandits wielding axes to extract money out of factory owners, and director Wilson Yip (who is a regular collaborator with Donnie Yen) and writer Edmond Wong are able to subtly suggest more than show the near-dooming atmosphere to full dramatic weight within a brisk and efficiently paced 106 minute running time.
Against that backdrop are the brilliantly staged martial arts sequences that reminded me of how much I miss good old-fashioned, grounded, and realistic choreography as opposed to the overused wire-assisted flying and scaling up on walls. The fights that are strictly hand-to-hand combat without any weapons are some of the best from the veteran action director Sammo Hung (who is the best in the business alongside the more well-known Yuen Wo-ping). They are also some of his fiercest, which is justly fitting considering the untrammeled directness of the Wing Chun Fist that was founded on the notion that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The camerawork also very wisely goes back to basics in deftly shifting between medium-length spatial shots of combat with brutal close-ups of rapid fists and punches crunchily hitting faces without unnecessary slow-motion. The musical score by Kenji Kawai is also one of the more stirring in blending the tones of looming sadness with pulsating notes to complement the action scenes.
Then there is Donnie Yen. He is not that well known in the US and has been under the shadow of some of his contemporaries like Jet Li whom he had fought on screen as an antagonist in a few movies like Once Upon a Time in China II and Hero. Some may initially think that Yen is the only remaining actor to be tapped on since Jet Li has announced that he's leaving the traditional wushu epic genre but the extra, edgy ferocity Yen usually brings in his combat style actually makes him a more ideal fit to the role regardless. And because he so thoroughly embodies such a thoughtful, composed, and sane personality to ground the intense physical requirements of the character (he had to train intensively for four months to learn the Wing Chun fist) and later his individual crisis of questioning the value of his own martial arts, it is difficult for me to picture anyone else who could have played this role.
The supporting cast, including the ubiquitously reliable HK actor Simon Yam, is all solid but one true standout performance comes from Ka Tung Lam playing the cop turned interpreter who, in many ways, is the most complex and dynamic character in the movie and also presents the biggest departure from the conventions of the martial arts genre. When we first see him, we hardly like him as he seems like such an oily weasel who frowns upon martial arts and later a coward and a “lackey” as Ip calls him when he is actually helping recruit Chinese martial artists to fight for bags of rice. But Lam and the screenplay modulate his unlikely character to become the one who may be subtly moved by Ip and his dramatic arc gradually reveals his own depth of patriotic loyalty and even defiant heroism rather than just standing in a helpless position of watching his countrymen die.
Yes, there may be some who complain the film as a biopic fudges some historical facts (and one detail the movie leaves out is that Ip himself was in real life a police officer). But just as a boxing style is surrounded by so much folklore and legends, the truest things at the center are the elegance of the style and the concentration of body, mind, and spirit it builds in its practitioner in difficult times. By simply relying and focusing on those elements and stripping away unnecessary stylistic flourishes to distract from them, Ip Man creates a fine, classical entertainment in the martial arts genre.
Bottom line: Pretty close to brilliance.