Sunday, May 1, 2011

"Ip Man" (2008)

Starring Donnie Yen, Simon Yam and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi
Written by Edmond Wong
Directed by Wilson Yip

Ip Man (Collector's Edition) [Blu-ray]"Ip Man" is a pretty fascinating film.  It takes the life of Ip Man, (also spelled Yip Man) a now-legendary martial arts instructor, and turns it into a crackling and impressive (if historically inaccurate) action film.  Before seeing the film, I was aware of it, having seen trailers for it online and heard some positive reviews around.  So I was aware of some of the broad strokes of the film, most impressively that Ip Man would later in life train one of the biggest names in martial arts films: Bruce Lee.  Already knowing that fact when going into "Ip Man" somehow seemed to make it more impressive, and even to reinforce some of the characterization in the film.

Ip Man is a master of Wing Chun.  He lives in the city of Foshan with his wife, Cheung Wing-sing (Lynn Hung) and young son Ip Chun (Li Chak).  Ip Man is independently wealthy, and does not run his own martial arts school, even though he is the city's greatest fighter.  He is humble, concerned only with keeping to himself and practicing his art.  His wife often resents the amount of time he spends with his sparring with his friends rather than with his family, but she loves him and lets him do as he pleases.

One day, some punks come to town led by Jin Shanzhao (Fan Siu-wong), an arrogant master of northern style martial arts.  After Jin defeats the other masters in town, he barges into Ip's home and challenges him to a duel.  After much prodding, Ip finally accepts and thoroughly trounces Jin, sending him off in disgrace.  The town rejoices and hails Ip as a hero, which brings Ip obvious discomfort, though he accepts there gifts so as not to seem rude.

Not long after, the Japanese invade and capture the city of Foshan.  Ip and his family are kicked out of their home and their mansion is transformed into an army base.  Now living in essentially a shack, Ip ekes out a living shoveling coal while the Japanese grind Foshan under their boot.  The Japanese general, Miura, demands that Chinese fighters challenge his men in exchange for bags of rice.  After one of Ip's friends disappears, Ip accepts the challenge to discover what has happened to him.  Ip witnesses his friend being killed for taking the rice, and, enraged, mercilessly beats ten of Miura's men in the ring.  Impressed, Miura demands that Ip return to fight more of his men in the future.

Instead, Ip begins to train workers of a local cotton factory in the art of Wing Chun so that they may defend themselves against a gang of bandits led by Jin.  Ultimately, the humble, unassuming master Ip Man must realize his place as a leader and as an inspiration to his people to get them to rise up from oppression.

The story of Ip Man is pretty fascinating, and presented well here in Wilson Yip's film.  There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and the film can sometimes be a little too obvious.  But it's well written and quite well performed.  Donnie Yen is adept at both the intense martial arts required of the action sequences and also at being a nice guy who simply wants to do what he loves and spend time with his family.  Though she doesn't get much screen time, Cheung Wing-sing creates a believable frustrated wife for Ip Man, and Li Chak as their child gets some of the biggest laughs in the film.

Yes, there are moments of levity to brighten up the somewhat dour proceedings.  After the Japanese invasion, the film loses most of its vibrancy and color.  Much of the city has decayed, its population reduced from 300,000 to only 70,000, and the film illustrates this by obliterating its color palette.  The contrast between these two sections of the film is quite stark - but there's always a sort of dignity and hope in the way Ip Man carries himself, and in the way he cares for his wife and she cares for him.

The fight sequences are key to the entire movie, since this is an action film, biopic or not.  So how do they fare?  Awesome.  I'm not really sure I have to much to say here which that clip cannot say for itself.  There's a lot of really, poundingly good action on display here.  If I have one complaint it may be that the climactic fight is the shortest one in the entire film, which sort of deflates it a little bit.  Still, these are some really great fights (even if mostly made up for the movie and didn't really happen).

There's probably a whole debate here about historical accuracy versus entertainment value, a debate which certainly has raged for quite some time in both film and other mediums.  It's a debate that came up frequently when discussing Zack Snyder and Frank Miller's "300," which was a highly stylized telling of the Battle of Thermopylae.  While "Ip Man" doesn't go so far as to create mythical creatures for its title character to fight, it does create a more dramatic and action-oriented storyline.

It's not a debate I'm particularly interested in delving into - My personal stance on the matter is that if the film is well-made and entertaining, then embellishments are certainly welcome, to an extent.  I guess I'm just willing to see what the film has to offer, rather than be a slave to history.  It is "based on a true story" after all, key part being "based on" which obviously implies that liberties have been taken.  And in "Ip Man," those liberties take the form of some truly excellent fight sequences.

In any case, I enjoyed "Ip Man" greatly.  I think you will, too.

See Also
Ip Man 2