In the 1930s, wealthy land owner Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is one of the most talented martial artists in the Chinese city of Foshan – although unlike his contemporaries he shies from the spotlight and does not run his own wing chun school. When China is invaded by the Japanese, a brutal general named Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) targets Ip Man for the ultimate martial arts challenge.
I recently reviewed Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, a languid and visually stunning biographical picture about kung fu master Ip Man. While that film took some five years of delays and production woes to go from screenplay to screen, Wilson Yip’s faster, less ambitious take on Ip enjoyed a much smoother process. Released in December 2008 it became not only a massive hit in its own right but a kickstarter for an entire wave of Ip Man pictures, including two direct sequels (a third is to shoot in 2018).
Unlike The Grandmaster, Ip Man is a thoroughly commercial picture, strategically composed by its director to have lowest common denominator appeal for a mass Chinese audience. Like many Chinese-language features of the past decade it is an aggressively nationalistic film to the point of propaganda. For star Donnie Yen it feels like the first part of a loose patriotic trilogy. After beating up the Japanese in Ip Man he went on to punch his way into defending Republic of China founder Sun Yat-sen in Bodyguards and Assassins, and beat up even more Japanese people in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. There is something very slightly distasteful about overly nationalistic action films; they have a tendency to border onto – and sometimes straight-up dive into – racist portrayals of whatever rival nation is opposing their protagonists. To an extent Ip Man does feel a little like a Chinese Rambo sequel.
That in mind, there is still plenty of entertainment value in Ip Man. First and foremost it stars the jaw-droppingly charismatic Donnie Yen, arguably the best of Hong Kong’s male action stars. He is effortlessly charming, looks great on screen, and balances his enormous martial arts prowess with genuine acting skills. He presents a much warmer Ip Man than Tony Leung’s take over in The Grandmaster, and that suits the relatively simple and direct narrative that Yip has chosen to tell. Yen’s performance is even more impressive when you learn that prior to making the film he did not know wing chun kung fu – he learned it specifically for the movie. His co-star Hiroyuki Ikeuchi is a blackbelt in judo, and between the two of them their fight scenes bring a lot of authenticity.
The action sequences are thrilling, showcasing the prowess of the various martial artists while engaging in a pleasing amount of stunt and wire work: victims don’t simply get kicked over, they go flying across the room with the sort of kinetic energy that martial arts movie fans adore. While the climactic one-on-one duel is hugely impressive, it is actually a mid-film face-off between Ip Man and ten judo champions that really stands out.
Ip Man is a simple action film with one eye on pro-Chinese propaganda, but within that framework it is a wonderfully entertaining movie. The performances are strong (including Hong Kong cinema mainstay Simon Yam), the martial arts is stunning, and it all moves along at an efficient pace. Some people like to divide feature films into two categories: films and movies. Films are the serious artistic works, oftentime dramas, concerned with exploring social issues or the human condition, sometimes pushing the language of film into new directions. Movies are just filmed stories intended purely to entertain an audience and nothing beyond. Personally I feel there’s a much more nuanced continuum to cinema, but if you’re looking to try one of Hong Kong’s numerous Ip Man adaptations, consider The Grandmaster to be the film. Ip Man is the movie.