Sometime around the 1930’s, if you really wanted to be down with Martial Arts, you probably wanted to live in the small Chinese town of Fo Shun because that’s were all the masters were setting up shop. In fact when we descend on yet another Wilson Yip, Donnie Yen collaboration in ‘Ip Man’, we see that Master Liao (Zhen Zhi Lui) has just opened his own Martial arts club in town and was curious if what he heard about the legendary Ip Man (Yen) was true and challenged him to a friendly sparring competition. Oh… it was true. There aren’t many certainties in life but Ip Man politely and respectfully kicking your ass is a close second to the sun rising in the morning. And so life goes as Ip Man lives his peaceful life with his ridiculously tall wife Zhang (Lynn Hung), his precocious little boy, and occasionally politely kicking the asses of individuals showing up in town to challenge Fo Shun’s martial arts dominance. Then the Japanese show up.
The Japanese occupation of China were not the best of times in the history of the world as we see that the beautiful, peaceful town of Fo Shun has now become a dilapidated shell of itself. There are dead bodies in the streets, citizens are routinely shot by Japanese soldiers, and hunger is the order of the day. Reconnecting with Ip Man we see that he too is struggling with this sorry existence just like his fellow countrymen. His palatial home has been claimed by the Japanese, he lives in a rundown shack with his tall wife and young son living hand to mouth, finding food and accepting work wherever he can find it.
One day at one of these lousy jobs a Japanese colonel, via interpreter, asks for volunteers to demonstrate Chinese martial arts for General Miura (Hiroyui Ikeuichi), which leads to one of Ip Man’s friends volunteering. Ip Man tries to stop this guy but you do get a bag of rice for your participation… note we would not see this young man again.
Curious as to the whereabouts of his friend, the next day Ip Man volunteers, mainly just to be escorted to the place where these demonstrations are taking place and what he sees turns his blood cold. So angry Ip has become, he volunteers to demonstrate
exactly what Chinese martial arts is all about. Here, he would not be so polite. General Miura is impressed by what he sees and wants Ip Man to return. This is not going to happen.
Circumstance leads to Ip Man falling out of favor with the Japanese which usually means getting shot in the head, but General Miura gives Ip Man the option of saving his life by teaching his soldiers Chinese martial arts. This is not going to happen either. Mind you the General is an accomplished martial artists in his own right so why not just beat Ip Man down during a public display to show these people just how superior Japanese kung fu is to Chinese kung fu. I don’t want it spoil it for you but this is not going to happen.
Yip’s ‘Ip Man’ is a biography picture… sort of. Don’t get me wrong because I personally found this movie to be spectacularly entertaining, but as a biography picture detailing the life times of one Ip Man, the master of the Wing Chung technique of martial arts and mentor to one Bruce Lee… it really isn’t much of one. What I knew about Ip Man before watching this movie was that he was a Wing Chung master and that he could kick much ass. What has been added to my knowledge about Ip Man after watching this biography is that he had a nagging hot wife, a little boy and some serious trouble with the Japanese, so I’m just saying that as a biopic ‘Ip Man’ was lacking a little bit. But as an overall movie they probably don’t get a lot more entertaining than this.
At this point in their respective careers Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip looks like they have pretty much figured out this whole movie making thing and have it down to a near science. ‘SPL’ was loud, explosive and entertaining, ‘Dragon Tiger Gate' was silly, obnoxious and entertaining, ‘Flashpoint’ almost brought a tear to my eye it was so gloriously violently entertaining but with ‘Ip Man’ both actor and director reach for something a little further away here, and I think they achieved it.
Donnie Yen doesn’t get a lot of credit for being a decent actor but here I do believe he’s created an authentic three dimensional character with Ip Man, one who is dedicated, loyal, conflicted and carries a strong moral center which guides the character. Yes, he will kick your ass, but unlike Detective Ma from 'Flashpoint' who kicks ass simply because the sky is blue, his training is presented here as a conduit towards peace of mind with violence only being an unfortunate means to an end.
While the Japanese are largely portrayed here as one dimensional jack booted thugs, particularly Shibuya Tenma’s take as the vile Colonel Sato, we are thankful some thought was given in creating Hiroyui Ikeuichi’s General Miura. Admittedly Ikeuichi seemed far too young to be a veteran army general, but his character was given some honor and a sense of fair play. He’s loyal to the Emperor, he thinks the Chinese are inferior and he has no issue with what they are doing to the Chinese, but in the arena all respect is given.
All that stuff aside of course the fight sequences are what make this movie. Donnie Yen does what Donnie Yen does, the fight sequences are drum tight, flawlessly choreographed, use a bare minimum of wire work and are thrilling to behold. But at this point when talking about these movies from this director and this star, this is to be expected.
I re-watched ‘Ip Man’, which unfortunately went reviewless, after seeing it initially a couple of years ago because we see that there is a sequel about to hit so we had to freshen up on our ‘Ip Man’ lore to ready ourselves for the new film. All I can say is that ‘Ip Man 2’ has some big shoes to fill.