In the tradition of Jet Li's "Fearless" and "Fist of Legend", comes the fourth collaboration between the Wilson Yip-Donnie Yen tag team who also brought us the phenomenal "Sha Po Lang" in 2005. "IP MAN" is based on the life of the man responsible for making the Chinese kung fu style of "Wing Chun" (invented by a woman), which is up to this day, is among China's most revered style. Yes, Ip Man is also the man who has a huge number of talented disciples--most notably, the late great Bruce Lee.
In the 1930's, the Chinese province of Fo Shan is a thriving place of martial arts schools, with various sects of different styles. Fo Shan is said to be the place where the famous Fong Sai Yuk learned his art and therefore this place has a reputation. Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is a very accomplished martial artist but he keeps to himself, maintains a low profile and quietly spars with friends at home. But after an acknowledged victory over a fighter from the Northern quarter, Master Jin (Fan Siu Wong), Ip Man becomes an instant hero in Fo Shan.
Time passes and in the late 1930's, following the Japanese invasion, Ip Man's property was confiscated by the Japanese army and his family is forced to live an abject existence. One day, general Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a fanatical practitioner in Karate, witnesses the skills of this Wing Chun master. The general becomes obsessed with Ip man, and demands that the Chinese style of Wing Chun be taught to the Japanese army. But Ip man refuses and instead challenges Miura to a duel. Ip Man has to uphold the benevolence of his art and protect Chinese dignity. The battle for national pride is about to begin….
The one thing I know for sure is that Ip Man is indeed Bruce Lee's first teacher in Hong Kong for many years, and that Ip man was indeed asked to teach the Japanese; the rest of the significant historical details in this biopic is a little questionable. Yip and screenwriter Edmond Wong does get some details right, but please keep in mind that this is an action film first and foremost--it is hardly a historical drama. The action direction by Hong Kong legend Sammo Hung is indeed amazing, and it is the film's main draw. The story has the usual elements of honor, family, loyalty and pride and offers very little that is new and fresh--but this doesn't mean that it made the film any less exciting.
There is very minor characterization involved. The film has two acts, and the first has Ip Man's status in the Fo Shan province. He is a business man and he doesn't teach his art, there are hints that he used to compete, but he decided to keep a low profile because of his wife, Cheng (played by Lynn Hung). His relationship with his wife and son is somewhat estranged at times because of his love for sparring--she throws a tantrum whenever he fights; Ip Man is a humble man, and shows his wife the respect due her. The second act exposes the effect of the Japanese invasion of 1937 on Master Ip, his family and the Chinese people. While Donnie Yen may indeed lack the necessary acting ability to portray him dramatically--he sure has the presence of a highly trained martial artist. Director Yip did the right thing in focusing more on fights than dramatic impact. There are also some touches of social commentary seeing as how some Chinese prey on their countrymen and they only look out for themselves.
As I've said, Sammo Hung's action choreography is indeed phenomenal and it sure helps when you have a cast of real-life martial arts practitioners and action-honed actors such as Yen, Louis Fan and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, who holds a Kuro Obi in Judo in real life. Sammo Hung maintains a nice balance between finesse, realism and downright brutality--the fights are very intense and very focused. It is a mix of the usual wire-fu and occasional acrobatics. Highlights include, Ip Man taking on 10 Japanese fighters in one time, the fight between Fan Siu Wong and Yen is quick but exciting, complemented with some subtle doses of humorous cracks. The fights are exquisitely shot, with multiple camera angles in a perspective view to close ups, so you can see all the hard-hitting action. There are also times when an opponent is thrown in the camera's view and I thought this added a lot of style and intense attitude. Director Yip and company knows exactly how to shoot and edit fight sequences, this proves to be the film's main showstopper along with the superb fight choreography.
The action encounters are nicely placed and Wilson Yip needs to be credited for maintaining an excellent pace with its balance between action and drama. While this film is historically inaccurate, for the most part, it does succeed as an action film--a very well done at that. The film does ultimately fail as a character-driven, true-to-life biopic. Donnie Yen's "Ip Man" is more about his capabilities as a fighter than who he really was as a man, which is no doubt due to fact that it wanted to maintain a China-friendly film. The film's structure is more of a popcorn action film than an emotional biopic of a man who made his mark in using his fists to unite the Chinese people. It plays too fast and free to fully realize the film's potential as a "based on true events" type of deal.
Despite some flaws in the script, and the filmmakers relying too much on the audiences' good beliefs rather than developing Ip Man as a man than as a caricature of a folk hero; (no doubt an attempt to match Wong Fei Hung in "Once upon a Time in China" and Huo Yuan Jia in "Fearless") to portray him as an inspirational role model/saint. "IP MAN" is a truly exciting film which is just full of action and the energy it exudes is just so much fun to watch. I am rather very interested in seeing as to what Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen would bring "IP MAN 2", which would hopefully show more of his experiences in Hong Kong (which may include his time with Bruce Lee). Of course, by that time, Wong Kar-Wai's version of "IP MAN" will be released and will hopefully have more historical significance than action thrills.
Still, this film comes with a "Highly Recommended" rating from me, it does kick major ass as a martial arts action film. [4 ½ Stars]
Note: The language in the film carries is Bi-Lingual with both Cantonese and Japanese Languages.
Added: IP MAN 2 was also reviewed in this community.
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