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Ip Man (2008)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

IP MAN (2008)

Starring: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Siu-Wong Fan, Lynn Hung, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Yu Xing

Written By: Edmond Wong Directed By: Wilson Yip

The Short Version

Come for the amazing martial arts; stay for the drama.

Donnie Yen finally gets the spotlight he deserves on a massive stage.

The story of the war Westerners never think about is powerful.

Just remember: never trust biopics to deliver accurate history.

If you’re even remotely interested in martial arts, you are required to see Ip Man.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

ARTISAN CHEDDAR.

So much sharper than you were expecting; masterfully crafted.


Pairs Well With...

OOLONG, SPIKED WITH GINGER LIQUER.

Sometimes, things are best contemplated with simple tea… though a little kick certainly doesn’t hurt.

“Although martial arts involves armed forces, Chinese martial arts is Confucius in spirit.  The virtue of martial arts is benevolence.”


The best movies transcend the labels that the world at large tries to give them, and refuse to occupy any single pigeonhole.  With few exceptions, those who seek out Ip Man do so because they have heard whispers that it is an amazing martial arts film, and so it is.  But if you think that’s all it is, you are so very, very wrong.

Ip Man is not an action film.  It is a period drama that makes extensive use of action… and even that doesn’t quite catch all of it.  Like the character of Ip Man himself (or Yip Man or Ye Wen; I’m going with the translation I have), this film is not easy to nail down.  It is a story of the World War II that Westerners rarely if ever think about, and of a man who dared to defy an Empire.

For once, that phrase is no exaggeration.  He really did.

You see, Ip Man is not a fictional character.  He is, in fact, the father of modern the Wing Chun martial arts discipline, and would eventually – as this film’s marketing loves to point out – become a mentor to some guy named Bruce Lee.  But long before that, and two years before the Nazis invaded Poland, the Japanese Empire invaded China, and when the invaders demanded that Ip Man teach their soldiers the secrets of Wing Chun, he said “no.”  So yes, this is the story of one man defying an Empire.

Of course, only a fool gets his or her history from biopics and historical dramas and takes it at face value.  (Just try talking to someone who got all they know about John Kennedy’s assassination from Oliver Stone and you’ll see.  Hopefully.)  Ip Man may not be a fictional character, and the story this movie tells is based on kernels of truth, but Ip Man is a long way from documentarian accuracy, to the point of being more of a modern legend than anything else.  However, it does capture an essence – an essence of both a man and of a period in history – and it does so beautifully.  And so, with those historical cautions in mind, let’s take a closer look at Ip Man.

We’ll start with the thing that attracts most people to Ip Man in the first place: the fighting.  Yes, it really is every bit as captivating as you’ve heard, and features some of the best stuff I’ve seen in years.  If there is beauty to be found in the violence of combat, Ip Man and its legendary action director Sammo Hung have captured it.  (As often happens in Asian films, the action is directed independently of the rest of the picture.) The fights – which are plentiful – range from friendly one-on-one hand to hand duels to sword-versus-spear fighting to one-against-many mashups to full-on brawls, and when the blows hit, even the audience members can feel them.  All of it is beautifully choreographed with a perfect mix of grace, speed, and violence.  (As an action legend himself, Sammo Hung knows full well how to showcase a fight to maximum advantage.)  Sure, the Chinese fighting isn’t strictly Wing Chun as the dialogue would suggest it to be, nor is the Japanese fighting strictly karate, but even if you’re savvy enough to catch that, you’re simply not going to care.

Nearly every fight in Ip Man could easily be the centerpiece battle of a standard action film, but two in particular stand out from a combat action perspective.

The first is the climactic battle that closes off the film’s First Act.  An out-of-town bully, Jin (Siu-Wong Fan, Shaolin vs. Evil Dead), has stormed into Foshan hoping to defeat all of its Masters, therefore sealing his own reputation so he can establish his own school and earn his fortune.  After he finally goads an unwilling Ip Man to fight, he ends up wishing he hadn’t.  It starts as a friendly enough contest of fists that is simply beautiful to watch for its fluid grace.  It even has a few light moments when Jin starts breaking furniture and declares “I’ll pay!” every time he does so.  When Jin realizes he can’t win the normal way, he brings a sword into the mix, at which point Ip Man arms himself with what amounts to being a feather duster.  It is the sword-versus-feathers component of this fight that truly makes it stand out from the crowd, and I won’t spoil it for you here with a full play-by-play.  I’m sure you can guess, though, that Ip Man kicks Jin’s ass with the feather duster, and if you love martial arts action at all, it is a joy to behold.

The second standout fight is anything but light and all the more powerful for it.  It occurs after the Japanese have invaded, and the commander in charge of subjugating Foshan, General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Space Battleship Yamato), looks to enjoy the spectacle of the famous fighters of Foshan taking on his own soldiers in martial arts combat.  (As incentive, any starving Chinese willing to fight are offered a bag of rice for their efforts.)  Upon learning that his friend was killed after agreeing to fight, Ip Man, who has shied away from martial arts practice since the invasion, demands to enter the fray himself.  Once there, he further demands to fight not one but ten Japanese soldiers.  What follows is an exercise in efficient brutality.  Whereas all of the fights he participated in before the invasion were conducted with a smile, here, Ip Man is all business, and he is not looking for submissions: he’s looking to injure.  It takes less than two minutes, but it’s a nasty two minutes.  Bones snap, limbs bend in ways they’re not supposed to, and yes, I do believe he even steps on someone’s groin.  This is a very angry fight, and even more than the combat, it’s that anger you will remember.

Through it all, Donnie Yen is simply excellent.  He’d never quite gotten the limelight respect he deserved before this, but with Ip Man, he gets to take center stage in a way that cannot be denied.  It’s not just his skill as a fighter that makes him stand out, either.  He also brings a depth of feeling to the character of Ip Man that goes beyond the standard “strong, silent” hero mode, and whereas the word “honor” is ridiculously overused when it comes to combat (they are not one in the same, soldiers), Yen’s performance makes that audience feel that honor is exactly what this is about in a real, profound way.  A script alone cannot do that; as Ip Man himself says, “It’s not the style; it’s the person.”

This brings us to the part of Ip Man that many audiences are not expecting: the powerful drama.

Ip Man starts lightly enough as viewers are introduced to a fairly prosperous Foshan where good-natured martial arts combat is the preferred means of having fun.  Indeed, the entire First Act can be looked upon as that of a fairly typical martial arts action film with its frequent fights and little bits of humor.  (It’s especially fun to watch the exchange when Jin rudely bursts into Ip Man’s house looking for a fight, and Ip Man keeps telling him “no” until finally, it is his wife who’s had enough from the rude intruder and agrees to the fight by telling Ip Man “Don’t break my things” before walking away.)  But it is with the arrival of the Japanese in the Second Act that Ip Man gets its true power.

It’s amazing how Westerners often forget – if they’re ever taught at all – about Japan’s invasion and occupation of China in 1937, and how truly devastating it was.  And while Ip Man (wisely for the sake of story, I think) does not depict the invasion itself, instead explaining its occurrence by way of title cards, the point is never the less made to strong effect.  The film’s color palette darkens with heavy grey overtones, and a walk through the depopulated streets of Foshan speaks of heavy loss and devastation.  The people who remain, once proud and happy, are downtrodden and starving.  Even the once respected martial arts masters are reduced to shoveling coal in exchange for small shares of rice and a single potato per day.  The horror and sadness comes across loud and clear without anyone needing to say a word.  And when the bullying Japanese soldiers come around…

I find it interesting that so many Western critics comment about how poorly the Japanese are portrayed here.  Indeed, they are shown as being heartless brutes, taken as a group, even if General Miura himself does have some small traces of honor to his character.  With that in mind, though, the Japanese soldiers in Ip Man are never actually dehumanized, and honestly, the historically documented Japanese occupiers of World War II were very, very cruel to say the least.  If anything, one suspects that this portrayal holds back, and I can’t help but notice that these same Westerners who question the Japanese in this movie never question how nasty the Nazis are made out to be in movies that take place in Europe.  Just something to think about.  (Though I will also point out that not all Japanese were like the fanatical invading armies, just as not all Germans were Nazis.  No nation’s people should be judged by its army.  Indeed, no nation’s people should be judged en masse, period.  But anyway.)

Again, two moments stand out when it comes to the drama of the people of Foshan having to cope with the oppression of the Japanese invaders. 

The first occurs during a fight scene, but it is not the combat itself that provides the power so much as a single moment of it.  General Miura steps down to the mat and challenges a trio of Chinese to a three-on-one fight.  After less than twenty seconds of combat, it is abundantly clear that Miura is more than capable of dispatching them all, and two choose to yield and preserve their own skins.  One, however, refuses to yield, and sees the moment as his one chance to stand up to the Japanese for what they’ve done to his people.  He jumps back into the fight with Miura, knowing that he cannot win, and when Miura offers him one last chance at mercy, the man instead spits blood into Miura’s face.  If that isn’t a powerful dramatic protest, I don’t know what is, and the camera catches it fabulously.  I’m sure you know what happens next.

The second moment immediately follows the previously noted fight between Ip Man and the ten Japanese soldiers, and it, too, is a moment of protest.  Amazed at the prowess of the Chinese coal-shoveler before him, Miura demands that Ip Man provide his name.  Ip Man, however, does not feel that the fight was for himself, and so he simply replies: “I am a Chinese man.”  There is simply no missing the symbolism there, nor the power of the way he says it.  (If you can, watch Ip Man with subtitles so you can hear the true inflections of the actors’ voices.)  Indeed, it’s hard not to catch an echo of “I am Spartacus.”

Beyond the combat and beyond the drama, there’s also the (not so) simple joy of beautiful filmmaking craft to be found in Ip Man.  For me, the greatest example of this is the kite, which we first see as a transition to take us from the streets of Foshan to the home of Ip Man.  The shot that tracks the kite is gorgeous, and helps to infuse the kite with the deeper meaning we’ll discover it to have soon enough.  I won’t spoil it for you, but much later, you will see the kite again, and its reappearance is incredibly moving, thanks again to the simple grace of the camera.

Bottom line, you’ll probably be drawn to Ip Man by its reputation as one of the best martial arts films in years, and if it’s great combat you’re looking for, you definitely will not be disappointed.  For that alone, you do need to see this movie.  But when all is said and done, you’ll come away realizing that you got a lot more than you bargained for, including a serene performance by Donnie Yen and a powerful drama about the war the West tends to forget about.  Ip Man may be generously fictionalized insofar as being a biopic is concerned, but taken as a standalone film, it is definitely superb.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, April, 2012


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