Even the slightest of martial arts fans have heard of Bruce Lee. During his too brief life Lee completely redefined not only the Hong Kong martial arts movie, but revolutionized the actual fighting method with his own fighting style. On the other hand, one shouldn’t be surprised if the casual fans, particularly us Yanks, have never heard of Ip Man (aka Yip Kai-Man).
For the record, Ip was the man who taught Lee. True, one could add that Lee surpassed his master when he took Ip’s style, Wing Chun, and made it his own as Jeet Kune Do. As it happens, Ip’s story is every bit as amazing in its own right.
Donnie Yen can appreciate this. He was born in China, but did a lot of his growing up in the USA, where one of his mother was a recognized Tae Kwon Do master and ran a martial arts school. Like Lee, he crossed the Pacific often. (Lee was born in San Francisco, but spent much of his youth in Hong Kong). In his late teens, Yen’s mother sent her son back to Beijing to learn discipline as part of the Beijing Martial Arts Team.
Another interesting thing about Yen, while most Americans might recognize him from working with Jackie Chan as the main villain in Shanghai Noon, at 47 years of age he’s now the #1 action star Hong Kong. That’s right, his box office pull is now bigger than Chan, Jet Li or Chow Yun Fat. It’s only a matter of time before American fans realize this, and this biopic regarding Bruce Lee’s sifu should set the record straight.
If anything, one of the fascinations about the movie Ip Man is the contradictions between the real man and the film. The film, in its own strange way, is as much an homage to Lee’s film Fist of Fury (1972). It starts just before World War II, with Yen establishing Ip as pretty much the best martial arts master in the town of Fo Shen. It also goes a long way towards establishing many of the other characters who will play during the rest of this two-hour period piece.
The film kicks into high gear when the Japanese invade. Fo Shen is quickly subjugated by a martial arts obsessed general, Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) and his sadistic junior officer. Miura’s m.o. is to starve the village half to death, unless the men of the town will fight his soldiers. He does this to prove that Japanese fighting styles, primarily karate, are superior to anything the Chinese have. Of course anyone familiar with these kind of films know where the movie’s sympathies lie. Still, win or lose, the fighter gets a bag of rice for his beating.
Yet Miura has one particular obsession, to go mano a mano with Ip, but the master constantly refuses. Thus the build-up for the inevitable confrontation between the two men.
In real life, Ip was one of Fo Shen’s finest policemen, but the movie says nothing about that. He also had left Fo Shen with his student Kwok Fu until the war was over. He was also an opium addict, but apparently it was felt these would detract from the heroic qualities of the lead character. What matters is Yen carries the role with incredible dignity and, like a true martial artist, also has many of Ip’s most lethal moves down pat.Like many pics of this nature, the historical oversights are forgivable.
After all, the fight choreography is under the direction of Chan’s “older brother,” Sammo Hung. Cinematography, under Wilson Yip (SPL/Killzone), is also top notch. It not only frames Hung and Yen’s moves exceptionally well, but also show a mastery of color and setting that captures whatever mood the movie wants to portray.
In all, it’s not hard to see why this movie captured a dozen different awards, including Best Picture, Actor and Choreography at the 2009 Hong Kong Film Awards (the island’s equivalent of the Oscar). Even if it plays fast and loose with the facts, it’s a first class fight film. This really is what all us on the Western side of the Pacific really want to know. The two hours of extra content is icing on the cake.
As it happens, a sequel, Ip Man 2, has already been released overseas. Advance word is it’s also taking over the box office like its predecessor. If there is any justice in this world, it should also go a long way towards securing Yen’s American superstardom while it’s at it.
Ip Man: Collector’s Edition (Well Go USA) (2 DVDs)