Review: Ip Man, 2008, dir. Wilson Yip

Suggested alternate title: Donnie Yen’s Wide, Wide World of Butt-Kicking.

Donnie Yen is the kind of real-deal martial arts maestro who, by an unjust stroke of fate, never caught on as a mainstream kung-fu cinema hero for American audiences in the way that performers like Jet Li and Jackie Chan have. Arguably, Yen has no identifiable niche; L is a whirling and unstoppable dervish of fury and destruction, and Chan incorporates the kind of Three Stooges slapstick antics into his work that appeals to the average Joe Moviegoer as worthwhile entertainment (which isn’t to denigrate his skills as a martial artist). Yen just knows how to put a fist into an opponent’s face with the kind of collected calm usually associated with clipping one’s toenails or mowing the lawn.

It’s a shame because he’s not only great at what he does, he’s a compelling leading man. America, you’re missing out, though if you want to hop aboard the Donnie Yen train you could start off by watching Ip Man, a biopic (in the loosest sense of the term) focusing on the man who probably is more famous for being Bruce Lee’s teacher than anything else. But make no mistake about the film’s intentions or sensibilities; this is not a stodgy educational film about a real person and their real life, but an excuse to spin a highly-sensationalized yarn that includes a metric ton of impeccably choreographed and executed fight scenes.

Ip Man occurs in the 1930s and 40s, unfolding just before and in the middle of the events of the second Sino-Japanese War, and focuses on the eponymous character as he spends his days in leisure practicing his favored brand of martial arts– Wing Chun– and socializing with his friends. Ip Man practically possesses a level of sainthood in his home of Foshan: he takes no disciples but is nonetheless revered by all as the best martial artist in the entire village (which is widely known for housing a large number of martial arts’ schools), so much so that he is called upon the defend the honor of its people when a pack of fighters from the north arrive to challenge the local masters.

Eventually, the Japanese occupation arrives and life takes a turn for the worst for all as the villagers flee their lives in Foshan. Like countless others, Ip Man (who apparently has never worked a bona fide job a day in his life) goes to work as a coolie in a Japanese mine, where the Chinese are bribed into fighting a Japanese general’s military trainees for bags of rice. Ip Man discovers that his countrymen are being killed in these brawls and is impelled to intervene, at which point things start to take a turn for the worst for the Japanese.

Ip Man is the kind of film most people will switch on for one thing and one thing only: the fight scenes, which comprise a large chunk of the film’s running time and easily represent some of the best in recent kung fu cinema history. They’re superbly choreographed and expertly performed by a cast of excellent martial artists, for one, and not only that the film doesn’t hold them back. Without exaggerating, there’s a fight scene in the first ten minutes– a minor one, friendly sparring between Ip Man and a fellow master– and after that the kung fu spectacles come at a fast clip, never drawing out the delivery of plot and narrative long enough to cause the film to go slack. Great martial arts movies benefit from forward momentum and Ip Man is no different. Before long he’s in the darkened dojo used by the brutal Japanese military to train their own force at the expense of the well being of the oppressed Chinese populace, breaking limbs like so many toothpicks and introducing green martial artists to the business end of a flurry of punches.

Yen himself is quite good, too, even outside of the jaw-dropping fights, portraying the master as an affable and congenial warrior-sage. While Ip Man is written as the kind of guy who can do no wrong (an observation proven demonstrably false by a quick glance at his background), Yen’s performance manages to go beyond the one-dimensional character provided him by the script. For all his better qualities, Yen’s martial arts master seems unable at first to connect to his own wife and child in any meaningful way. She’s frustrated over the amount of time he dedicates to his friends and fellow martial artists compared to the lesser attention he accords to his family, and through Lynn Hung’s and Yen’s acting a flaw is exposed in his persona: Ip Man is kind of a dolt, impressive considering his unsurpassed philosophical wisdom. There’s not a huge payoff for their minor conflict, but Yen uses it to mar Ip Man if only just enough to keep him from being irritatingly perfect.

And ultimately it’s Yen’s presence and Sammo Hung’s fight choreography that demand Ip Man be seen at least once  by dedicated martial arts enthusiasts. Kung fu cinema isn’t often renowned for basing its action sequences on top of a strong storytelling framework, and Ip Man is no different. Considering the historical context and background of the film’s plot, Ip Man ends up feeling wafer-thin and totally undercooked; conversely it’s also incredibly melodramatic, so really it’s a movie that makes a big deal over very, very little. It’s a familiar structure with some well-worn story details, notably the portrayal of the Japanese as unfeeling and sadistic, cruel for their own entertainment and amusement at the expense of the dignity of the Chinese populace crushed beneath the empire’s heel. Maybe you’ll walk into Ip Man expecting it to remain somewhat grounded and down-to-earth given the near-legendary status of its title character and the film’s period setting– and if you do, you’ll be disappointed. There isn’t a history lesson here, much less an even-keeled depiction of a very real human being, just a nigh-relentless swath of pummelings and one-sided beatdowns.

Not that that’s a bad thing. If the storytelling isn’t terribly inspired, then the physicality of the movie more than compensates for that shortcoming. And besides, aren’t you tuning into a Donnie Yen movie to see Donnie Yen go Donnie Yen on an unending flow of bad guys in the first place? Ip Man knows what it is, and it knows what it must deliver, and in that regard it never once fails to make good on its intentions. Story schmory, Ip Man has the goods and it has them in spades. Anyone with even a cursory interest in the martial arts genre should do themselves a favor and check this flick out at the first opportunity; for hardcore kung fu fans, this is a must-see ASAP kind of movie. Maybe Donnie Yen doesn’t have the same kind of visibility as some of his peers, but there’s absolutely no denying that he’s an icon and treasure of the genre.

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