June 30, 2009

Movie Review: Ip Man

Wing Chun is one of the most popular styles of Chinese Martial Arts in the world, and this is one of the first movies ever to tackle the story of its founder Ip Man.


I must admit I had very few expectations prior to viewing this film. First of all I am not a fan of Wing Chun. Studied with some of the best in North America, and have good friends back in NM who are teachers of the art, but it just never resonated with me personally. And secondly the Hong Kong martial genre as a whole has fallen to the sides this past decade, not nearly matching the vigor it once held in the 80-90's. So my expectations were not too high for this flick when a friend (thanks Tim) sent it to me in the mail. Well kids twice in one month I must admit I was WRONG....Ip Man has become one of my top 5 martial flicks of all time!

The production value is top notch, matching the "Crouching Tiger" and "Hero" quality. Sammo returns to assist with the action choreography of the film, with Ip Chun (Ip Man's son) assuming the role of creative advisor. What exactly that means, I have no clue, but his involvement would cause me to assume the film has his blessings. And Donnie Yen did an excellent job playing Ip Man himself.

I am not knowledgeable enough of Ip Mans personal history (and it has been MANY moons since I read his biography) to speak of the accuracy of the events in the movie (and really much of Chinese martial history is skeptical at best), but damn if it was not entertaining! Complete with Confucian values and relationship dynamics (father - son / husband - wife / elder - younger), poor translation into English subtitles, Northern legs vs. Southern hands, and of course revenge and blood feuds! Ip Man has all the qualities we would come to expect from classic martial flicks. The difference lies in the quality of choreography, set design, and attention to detail.

In a nutshell the story tells of Ip's younger days just prior to the Japanese invasion when he was already an established "master" in Fu Shan. An interesting back story unfolds as a rival gang (headed by the excellent Kam Shan-chau) challenges all the martial teachers of Fu Shan, only to get his ass handed to him via Ip. Shortly there-after the Japanese invade and drive the wealthy residents of Fu Shan into poverty and despair.

For those of you unknowledgable of the events that took place in China at the hands of the Japanese this film gives a decent feel (without delving totally of course) of the effects of the war on the commoners of China. I have spoken with some of my Chinese friends who saw the movie, and they said for a kung fu flick it conveyed as realistic of a portrayal of the treatment of the Chinese, by the Japanese, as any martial movie ever has.

As the story unfolds Ip Man realizes that he must do what he can to boost the morale of his fellow country men, and what Ip Man knows how to do is fight! A Japanese general in charge of the Fu Shan military campaign also happens to be a Karate expert and he takes it upon himself to create challenge matches against the Chinese. If the Chinese fighters (Fu Shan in renowned for their martial prowess) win, they get a bag of rice. If they lose...well...no rice, and often no life.

I do not care to ruin the movie for you (use your imagination and you can probably guess the rest, there are no surprises here), but I highly suggest checking "Ip Man" out. In my opinion it is up there with "Hero" / "Iron Monkey" etc. The story has a little something for everyone, and is not overly violent nor bloody.

One thing I thought was rather interesting was the manner in which Ip Man was portrayed in terms of his demeanor and personal philosophy. Very gentle, constantly talking about brotherhood and camaraderie within the martial realm. He speaks of being friendly and building a community of like minded individuals for the betterment of the Chinese martial arts. This is in sharp contrast to about 90% of the Wing Chun community as I know it today in 2009! Wing Chunners are some of the most ego maniacal, aggressive, insecure martial artists I have come to know. Wing Chun is known for its political bullshit and in-fighting amongst various lineages. If this portrayal of Ip Man is accurate in the movie, then I wonder where things went wrong in real life with his teachings. Because I see very, very few teachers propagating this positive attitude and outlook on our community. Perhaps this can be Ip Mans parting lesson to his flock. Perhaps they will see this and learn from it. One can only hope.

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