Movie Review: Ip Man

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Tells the story of Yip Man, a Chinese martial artist, and his struggles during the Japanese occupation of China during the Second World War.

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Wilson Yip, 2008

Living in the 30s in Foshan, a city known for its martial arts masters, the independently wealthy Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is a brilliant Wing Chun martial artist. Other masters seek out Ip for battles, and are routinely thrashed despite Ip’s lack of master status. However, Ip struggles to maintain a balance between pursuing his passion and spending time with his headstrong wife Cheung (Xiong Dai Lin). When Ip defeats a gang of rude Northern martial artists, his reputation is cemented. By 1937 the family have fallen on hard times, however, their home and belongings taken by the Japanese during their invasion. Ip is forced to leave home to find work and support his sick wife. At first he’s reluctant to use his skills to help the locals stand up to the Japanese, until when he learns of Japanese general Miura’s (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) plans to recruit skilled Chinese martial artists to help the Japanese army. Miura creates an arena where Wing Chun disciples fight against his own soldiers, using karate. After discovering the deadly consequences of taking part in these matches for his countrymen, Ip takes on Miura’s men and begins training the Chinese to fight back.

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I have to be honest, I mostly just watched this as prep for seeing Rogue One in December. I knew so little going into this that I didn’t realise it was about a real person. It took me a while to figure out that Yip Man was a real person. Not that the movie is overly helpful in this regard – one can only assume it’s shot through with a healthy dose of fantasy, in the vein of something like Braveheart rather than a proper biopic. It’s as much a kung fu action flick as it is an account of Yip Man’s life. It takes a while to adjust to the style and the loose take on history, but it’s definitely an innovative take on a genre of film that can get stale. There’s a real sense of fun infused through this movie. It’s also a film that’s strongly nationalistic; while Miura has a little moral complexity to him, the film has strong anti-Japanese and anti-Northern sentiments. The majority of the Japanese and the Northerners are portrayed as cruel, callous brutes in opposition to Ip’s cultured, measured hero. Ip is in no way an everyman; he is portrayed as very clearly superior to the majority of the people he’s surrounded by.

Donnie Yen is mesmerising as Ip Man. His calm, intellectual take on the famous martial artist is built up perfectly, and the moment he finally loses his temper and shows us what he can really do crystalises as a magnetic moment of the film. The fight scenes are well-shot fun, with enough variety and difference between them that they stay fresh throughout. The increase in emotional engagement with the fights is effective. The film suffers a little structurally, though, particularly in the jump between Ip’s wealthy pre-war years to wartime. There’s some serious emotional whiplash there. Cheung’s reduced role in the later half of the movie is also disappointing, as the chemistry between Yen and Lin provides some of the film’s best character moments. She’s a great character, strong-willed and fiery and never demonised, though there is a moment towards the end of the movie that undercuts some of the strengths of their relationship. Also strong is Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, who goes toe to toe against Donnie Yen in intensity. It’s a unique take on the biopic genre, and an entertaining watch.

Ip Man on IMDb

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