In the last great war, one man defied an empire.
Who is Ip Man? He was a grandmaster in the martial art of Wing Chun, and he gained fame in China for standing up to the Japanese soldiers during World War II. Later, he became a respected teacher, sharing his vast knowledge of Wing Chun with others. Plus, as this DVD’s bonus features will point out many times, he was a mentor to action movie legend Bruce Lee. He’s a famous figure who led a colorful life, so it’s time for the biopic treatment. This one hopes to let viewers know who Ip Man was and what his personal philosophy meant, while also thrilling everyone with amazing martial arts battles.
In 1930s China, the village of Fo Shun is famous for its martial arts schools. Ip Man (Donnie Yen, Iron Monkey) is considered by many to be the best Wing Chun master in town, even though he has no desire to start his own school. After the war breaks out, everything changes. Japanese soldiers now occupy Fo Shun, ruling the town with an iron fist. To care for his wife and small child, Ip Man gets a job shoveling coal, which eventually leads him into contact with a cruel general (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), who is fascinated with martial arts fighting, making the Chinese duke it out in his gym in exchange for bags of rice. To maintain his dignity, Ip Man stands up to the Japanese, refusing to fight unless he feels he absolutely has to. His skills make him a target for the general, and he knows it’s only a matter of time before the two must duel.
I’m getting a real sense of duality to this movie. There are two sides to the Ip Man character in that he has all these martial arts skills but never wants to use him. There are the two halves of the movie, split between pre-war and post-war, and there are two competing tones at work, between serious drama and high-flying action.
Figuring out just who Ip Man is takes some doing. As the movie begins, he’s this easygoing family man who just happens to be the greatest martial arts master ever. We keep seeing guys showing up to either challenge him or learn from him, and he’s always reluctant to do so. One reason for this is because of his wife and kid. Time spent training and fighting is time spent away from his family, and his wife expresses concern over this. Still, I can’t help but wonder if there’s more to the story, and if something happened in Ip Man’s past that got him to this point, where he had seen some sort of awful violence and no longer wanted to be a part of it. If that’s true, we never learn that in the movie. As the story makes the jump to the Japanese occupation, Ip Man continues his reluctance to fight. It takes a lot of convincing before he teaches a bunch of factory workers some basic moves so they can stand up for themselves, and it takes a tragic death before he steps into the gym to show the general what he can do. Sure, there’s the big speech that a lot martial arts movies have, in which we learn that it’s not really about fighting but about facing each other as equals, that sort of thing, but that one speech didn’t seem to be enough to truly get into this guy’s head.
Fortunately, despite my misgivings of how the character is written, Donnie Yen nonetheless inhabits Ip Man nicely. There’s no question that the guy has all the cool moves, but his acting up to speed as well. He really shines in scenes where Ip Man is interacting with his wife and child, and I truly felt the connection they have for each other. His bursts of rage against the Japanese are short-lived, with him instead keeping his anger in check, but they’re powerful when they do happen. Basically instead of just being Mr. Stoic Badass, which is what we’ve seen in so many other movies like this, Yen portrays Ip Man as a guy with a big heart, plenty badass but not necessarily with the stoic part.
The movie begins by depicting the village of Fo Shun in all its original glory. The people are affluent and happy, and everybody loves martial arts more for sport than for survival. There are some conflicts, such as when a rival master feels his honor is threatened by Ip Man after word gets out about their private duel. Mostly, though, these are “the good old days.” Before watching the movie, I already knew it had to do with the Japanese occupation, so I kept wondering when it would happen, but eventually I got lost in this part of the story, which is really about Ip Man’s reputation growing after defeating a group of thugs who ride into town looking for a fight. This sets up Ip Man’s place in the second half of the movie, in that everyone on both sides of the conflict has already heard of him and knows what he can do. The actual jump between eras is surprisingly abrupt. A quick title card is all we get and suddenly we’re yanked right out of bright, colorful Fo Shun into drab, grey, depressing Fo Shun. After the occupation, the population dwindles, and people are starving as the Japanese hoards all the food for themselves. All the information about just how much has changed is doled out in small bits, so you have to pay strict attention to learn the specifics of where the characters are now at in their lives.
There is the powerful love a family has for one another, and there is the heartbreaking depiction of life during a harsh military occupation. All this drama is then broken up by guys flying backwards across a room after a single kick. The fight scenes have the whole The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Iron Monkey thing going on, with lighting fast moves, huge jumps, outrageous use of props, and slow motion money shots. Action movie fans will love these scenes, of course, which show Donnie Yen doing his thing. Some of my favorite bits are the fights where he uses an incredibly long pole to take on two guys, the much-talked-about duel with ten guys at once, and this move where he gets in close to an opponent and unleashes a whole bunch of small punches at once. Have those punches been jazzed up with special effects? Probably, but it looks awesome, so who cares? It’s jarring, however, to go from gut-wrenching heartbreak in one scene to over-the-top fight choreography in the next. Perhaps this is because the movie’s directing duties were split in two, between director Wilson Yip (City With No Mercy) and “action director” Sammo Hung (Legend of the Dragon). While I’m certain the two collaborated, it’s still evident where Yip’s scenes end and Hung’s begin.
A ton of detail went into this movie, with lavish sets and costumes, and the DVD’s video displays it all with remarkable clarity. From the bright shininess of the pre-war village, to the grim and gritty darkness of the war years, the colors and black levels are solid and rich. The audio excels as well, mostly during the fights, which are accompanied by a pounding action movie score. This two-disc set has a ton of bonus features focusing on the making of the film, including a lengthy and detailed featurette about its overall production, followed by another that looks specifically at the set design. From there we’re treated to deleted scenes, production diaries, additional interviews, and a number of trailers. If you forgot that Ip Man went on to become Bruce Lee’s mentor, don’t worry, because the bonus features will remind you of that about every two seconds.
Fans of martial arts action should check out Ip Man. Sure, it feels like the fighting and the drama are from two different movies, but both are quality, and Donnie Yen does great work in tying the two together. As of this writing, the sequel Ip Man 2 has just come out, depicting Ip Man’s adventures in Hong Kong after the war. After seeing the first one, I’m definitely curious in seeing where Ip Man’s story goes from here.