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Ip Man (2009, Hong Kong)

08/03/2011

Director: Wilson Yip        Starring: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Siu-Wong Fan

This 2009 loosely biographical account of Grandmaster Ip Man’s life before he moved to Hong Kong is a traditional Kung Fu movie in the truest sense, mostly because it deals with one of the giants of recent Chinese martial arts history. Sure, he may only be well known in the West as Bruce Lee’s teacher (Lee never completed his training under Master Ip for various reasons, a factor which undoubtedly contributed to his development of Jeet Kuen Do) but to assume that this is everything there is to the man is a serious mistake. His influence on the world of Chinese martial arts extends beyond teaching one pupil who would go on to find fame. He was one of the earliest proponents of open martial arts schools and believed that his Wing Chun style of kung fu should be taught as widely as possible in order to keep the traditions of the martial arts alive, a belief he held in the face of a tradition of keeping the secrets of your style close and teaching your fighting techniques only to a select few.

The film covers the period of his life where he lived in Foshan predating his move to Hong Kong where he would eventually open a school and teach his style widely. Like all the martial arts heroes portrayed in Hong Kong Kung Fu movies (Wong Fei Hong, Fong Sai Yuk) the Chinese tradition of mythologising their historic figures is at play. Sadly I don’t know enough about the details of Master Ip’s life to confirm the historical accuracy of most of the film, but to suggest that the facts have been massaged (for want of a better word) in order to make a more dramatic film would be a pretty big understatement.

Set against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s it portrays Ip Man (Donnie Yen) as a modest and reclusive Master, largely uninterested in teaching pupils his Wing Chun style of Kung Fu, preferring instead a peaceful existence of personal training and spending time with his family. When the occupation comes though he is stirred into action to teach his countrymen his skills and set an example against their Japanese oppressors.

It’s all pretty impressive stuff. Donnie Yen is superb as the modest and polite Ip Man capturing the split second changes between man of manners and etiquette and explosive martial power perfectly. Not having been formally trained in Wing Chun he appears to have taken his instruction from action director Sammo Hung and the chief Wing Chun advisor Ip Chun (the real life son of  Ip Man and successor of his father’s role as a figurehead for the style) rather well and deftly pulls off the necessary techniques in order to portray a Wing Chun master convincingly. The early fight scenes are full of humour and high spirits, amounting to little more than friendly (occasionally not so friendly) challenges from one school’s master to another. As the story progresses though and the darkness of the Japanes occupation takes hold the fight scenes also take on a darker edge. What was once a friendly contest to determine who had the superior style becomes about survival.

It’s here that the film diverges from playful exaggeration into borderline propaganda as Ip Man is portrayed as almost single handedly breaking the spirit of the Japanese occupation as a patriotic Chinese man imbued with the spirit of his traditions. It works in the context of the film though and so strangely isn’t that jarring. It probably helps that it sets up the two most exciting set pieces of the entire film, not the least of which involves Ip Man taking on ten Karate black belts single handedly. These later combat sequences are harsh and visceral compared to the playful sparring on show earlier in the film and they are all the better for it.

From a technical standpoint, there is a realistic aspect to the combat. Wire work is kept to a minimum (the occasions where it has been used tend to be very unobtrusive – there’s no flying from rooftop to rooftop here) and the close quarters, direct and efficient ethic of Wing Chun lends itself to action sequences that are a little bit different to the norm you would expect from an HK Kung Fu movie. It feels fresh and exciting and more realistic than is often the case. An antidote to the occasionally boring flamboyant extravagance of lesser Wu Shu movies, I can’t recommend it enough.

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