Wilson Yip’s Ip Man is compelling in that it has many goals. It first wants to cement the mythology of the titular character, Bruce Lee’s teacher and the grandmaster of the Wing Chun martial art. It wants to serve as a reminder of civility and a certain standard of morality. And it wants to unload a few rollicking, kick-ass action sequences.
There may be more goals than the aforementioned, of course, but Yip’s intentions are apparent in this 2008 motion picture. It moves through history with ornamentation, painting a story of a larger-than-life figure with immense heroics. Sammo Hung’s fight choreography is snappy and forceful and O Sing-Pui’s cinematography captures the heat well.
Donnie Yen is the titular character, a martial arts master living in the Guangdong Province’s Foshan. The city is a hub for kung fu and Ip Man is the best in the area. He spends time with his wife (Lynn Hung) and son. Sometimes he teaches a few of the local youths a few moves. Life is relatively simple, even when a thug (Fan Siu-wong) rolls into Foshan looking for trouble.
Ip Man’s idyllic lifestyle is eroded in 1937 as the Japanese invade. His home is claimed by the occupying army and he accepts work at a coal mine. Japanese General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) wants to prove the punishing worth of karate, so he challenges various fighters in Foshan in exchange for a bag of rice. When Ip Man is drawn into the fray, things get complicated.
Yip’s tonal control is interesting here. He commences Ip Man like an idealistic fable. Ip Man is quietly dining at home with the family and Master Liu (Chen Zhihui) wants a little “practice,” but he doesn’t want anyone seeing. This doesn’t go according to plan and a kid (Wong You-nam) spies the exchange, spreading word around Foshan.
This sequence sets up the tale and introduces the martial arts not as a combative method of self-defence but rather to test and “play.” Master Liu and Ip Man fight not out of anger but out of admiration. There is even some light wirework and their exchange seems whimsical, complete with a kite in a tree and all sorts of niceties.
Ip Man maintains this civility as long as he can, but the Japanese test his resolve. Yen’s character does not strike in anger until lives are at risk. He’s particularly brutal when a Japanese lieutenant moves on his wife. The violence is different. There is no friskiness, no “testing.” It’s all blood and broken bones.
Things come to a head when Miura fights the Ip Man. Here there is surprising poise. Miura has his own pride, plus his admiration for the art is apparent. Ip Man fights out of something more primal, but the exquisiteness of Wing Chun can still shine behind the clouds.
Ip Man does not work very well as a historical document and its sense for opulence makes it a rather embellished picture. It does not attempt to steer above the force of myth or the magic of exaggeration, but Yip’s command makes it a narrative worth seeing. Yen’s symmetry helps, too, as he employs Ip Man’s impressive skills without losing his cool.