There are many angles with which to approach Ip Man, and I am having difficulty trying to pick one. It can be tackled head first and seen as an outstanding martial arts movie where the hero, Ip Man, prefers to live a life of peace and sees kung fu as a way of life (and maybe even as an annoyance). It can also be viewed as a triumphant tale of national unity. If approached from yet another angle, it could be seen as a melancholy drama about foreign invasion and the loss of one’s identity. What if you stand back and view all three angles at the same time? You might get something spectacular.
Kung fu movies have always been fun and fascinating. They don’t exist in the real world — because people don’t fight like kung fu masters when attacked on neighbourhood streets — yet they present an idea of realistic fighting. This, I suspect, is due to the choreography, which no Hollywood production, no matter how hard it tries, can ever emulate. Oh yes, Hollywood has hired Chinese kung fu masters to help choreograph its fight scenes (Kill Bill, The Matrix), but the level of CGI employed to cover up the loose ends takes away from the moment’s authenticity. Chinese kung fu movies, for all their outrageous gravity-defying manoeuvres, showcase real people performing real moves, usually on real targets. It’s a discipline that cannot be bought or hired. It must be cultivated.
So Ip Man already has the advantage of being a Chinese production. All its parts are in place. Its trump card, however, is in the down-to-earth, almost somber characterisation of its title character, played calmly, coolly, and stylishly by Chinese veteran and kung fu practitioner Donnie Yen. Many kung fu movies are stylish. Much of this depends on the person portraying the fighter. For instance, in the classic Wong Fei Hong movies, Jet Li popularised one-handed combat, and no one looked better doing it. The thing that makes Yen’s Ip Man equally, if not more, stylish is his ability to keep his emotions in check even when suffering a blow to the face. He doesn’t fight single-handed, but he never looks shaken.
Ip Man’s discipline of choice is Wing Chun, a martial art famous for being originated by a woman and is now sought after by most of the Western hemisphere. One of Wing Chun’s core teachings involves the sturdiness of one’s centre, which refers to keeping balanced and rooted to the ground — you will find no flamboyant jumping kicks or spinning back thrusts. It’s a practical art form that thrives on close combat. And of course, it’s fast. Very fast. A friend of mine who practices Wing Chun once told me that a master can strike eight times in one second. That’s almost hummingbird fast.
There are plenty of moments in this movie to witness such breathtaking speed. The most famous comes from a scene in a Japanese dojo where Ip fights ten Japanese martial artists and comes out unscathed save for a couple of torn knuckles. Many thought the footage was sped up to make it seem like Yen was really that fast, but there is no tampering. Yen, who already holds high ranking belts in numerous martial arts from across the world (including Brazilian Jiu-Jutsu), trained for months before filming began. It’s not hard to believe that someone so naturally ingrained with the fluidity of martial arts could master a new one for the sake of a movie.
And this movie works well on other levels too. It takes place during the Sino-Japanese war, and after a prologue that shows off Ip Man as a man of wealth and luxury, it reduces the Chinese population to a pathetic mess of scavengers. Ip has to find a job. He has to protect his family. He has to consider the welfare of his close friends and allies. And he has to avenge his countrymen and stand up to the Japanese, who never seem to realise that they’d probably be much happier in their home towns hanging out with old friends. Among the movie’s more potent moments are a slap to the face of a former Chinese policeman (Gordon Lam) who becomes an interpreter for the Japanese after the invasion, and when Ip responds with “I’m just a Chinese man” after the Japanese general (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), impressed by his skills, asks for his name.
Best Moment | Every single fight scene.
Worst Moment | Nope.