SO far I’ve reviewed 5 martial arts films and not one of them has been Chinese in origin. Ninja Terminator is actually Filipino interestingly enough. So here’s my first proper 100% bonafide Chinese martial arts movie review, and it’s a doozy. Ip Man is the tale of a period of time in the life of one of the most influential martial arts masters of modern times, a man that trained Bruce Lee which eventually led to the creation of Jeet Kune Do. So, click the link for the review to see what I thought.
Ip Man stars easily one of the greatest martial arts stars of all time in the form of Donnie Yen. The guy is a legend that is not only ridiculously skilled as a performer but is a damn solid actor which is very rare in this particular genre. He does a fine job of portraying this movie version of Ip Man. I say movie version because it become apparent quite quickly that, though this is a biopic first, it is entertainment second. It’s very traditional in it’s story and presentation when compared to similar martial arts flicks. As such, unlike the reality, the film focuses on Ip Mans poverty during the Japanese occupation of his land and a series of fights against a Japanese general and his men. It makes for better drama but it isn’t true.
In reality before the war he was a police officer, which he never is in the film, who taught local friends and family his Wing Chun style. As in the film he never set up a school at this time. When the Japanese invaded in 1937 Ip Man actually worked as an officer and refused to teach Wing Chun to the Japanese military police. Eventually, after the war, he left Fo Shun for Hong Kong due to worries about his wealth which were against the then communist rules idea of how a Chinese man should live. He was also an opium addict which isn’t touched on at all in this film.
Instead the films story is a lot more heroic and honestly, better for the purposes of a movie of this type. In the film we start off in 1935 where Ip Man resides in Fo Shun in a district known as Martial Arts town. During the first 25 minutes of the film we get an understanding of the type of man he is, all wise and humble but can kick arse when needed, and we’re delivered the background we need for a few future conflicts. Then the film skips forward to the Japanese invasion and the poverty it brought. Ip Man looks after his ill wife, who’s only ill for one scene with no explanation given for her sudden good health, and he goes to work in a coal mine. Which he never did in real life. Anyway, while there some Japanese military turn up asking for fighters to demonstrate their kung fu skills for the General Miura. After one of Ip Mans friends doesn’t return he goes along to see whats up. People get their arses kicked, Ip Man stands up for the Chinese and eventually has a big old kung fu hustle against General Miura in a scene that’s was only missing a certain Joe Esposito song to make it the perfect martial arts tournament finale.
Whilst the story is 90% made up it’s still a very entertaining film. Think of this as more of an Adventures Of Ip Man than an actual biopic. The fighting is superb and occasionally quite brutal with a few limbs snapped into places they shouldn’t be snapped. If there’s one gripe I do have with it it’s that there’s moments where the fights are edited together in a slightly too Western fight scene style. There’s a lot of fast cuts, usually on impacts, and showy camera angles. One thing that’s always made Chinese martial arts films fighting stand out is the long takes and the lack of quick edits. It allows you to see the masters truly at work. When there’s a lot of cuts you become all too aware that they are stopping and starting between shots and it lessen some of the wonder. Compare the fights in this to the fights in say The Drunken Master and you’ll see what I mean. I’m not saying the edits are a bad thing, they’re just a bit too western in design for my tastes in this particular genre.
The film is clearly shot on sets and whilst some are pretty impressive others have a bit of a whiff of a stage production about them. The film appears to be shot on multiple different types of camera too lending some scenes a different colour and contrast tone than others. Sometimes between shots. The film is shot very well though with a lot of attention given to making sure the more grand sets are shown to their fullest.
The film has a nice fast pace and there’s no time wasted at any point. There’s also plenty of comedic relief. I’ve always liked how the Chinese will have a film with some deathly serious and dramatic moments punctuated with the odd goofball expression or quaint piece of cute child based humour. The part when Ip Mans son casually rides his bike into the middle of a battle in Ip Man’s home informing him to win the fight quickly before any his wife’s stuff gets broken managed to raise quite the chuckle from me.
Overall, though by no means accurate, the film is pretty well made and the story is engrossing enough to hold your attention. Most issues are merely technical and there’s little to distract from the energy of the fights despite the US style editing. Donnie Yen is as great as ever and I’d imagine he worked hard with Sammo Hung to contribute to the fight scenes. There’s traits of both their styles in there. This is Chinese blockbuster martial arts and thankfully it’s pretty light on the in your face cgi that’s distracted so much in films like Hero and House Of Flying Daggers. Recommended if you ever fancy watching someones leg get snapped backwards towards their head.