Cast: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Lynn Hung
Writer: Edmond Wong
Director: Wilson Yip
Release: 12 December 2008
Mandarin Films, 108 mins., Not Rated
Distributed by Well Go Asia U.S.), 2010 DVD release
Plot: Master Ip was once the most powerful martial arts master in the Fo Shan providence, but the WWII invasion by the Japanese rendered his gifts and abilities useless, until a Japanese military leader requests to fight any and all willing martial arts masters for rice - Ip Man's strength is required once again.
Renting the film, I had no foreknowledge that Ip Man is actually a semi-biographical movie based on "the grandmaster of the martial arts Wing Chun." Basically, I just wanted a mindless action movie with a bunch of dumb guys getting harshly beaten on by a martial arts wizard. Well, in that respect, the movie did deliver, but the surprising thing about Ip Man is that the movie's actually about more than just that. Whether or not it delivers that is up to you.
By that, I mean although I was enjoying the fight scenes, I still couldn't figure out what the movie was about. We're introduced to Master Ip (Donnie Yen), a man who is God-like with his ability to battle any opponent using the controversial Wing Chun art, and then we watch as he and his family suffer through some hard times during Japan-occupied China World War II. The movie doesn't seem to have any clear direction or 'mission statement', as it were. It wasn't until the ending credits roll of Master Ip biography 'facts' (including this little tidbit of info: Master Ip trained the legendary Bruce Lee!) that it 'clicked' what the movie was trying to be: a biographical picture based on the real Master Ip, and a statement film showing how one man openly defied the Japanese and stayed true to himself without compromise. Perhaps I've been conditioned for the real dramatic American version where our protagonist, also sweaty and determined, heroically monologues his patriotic intentions; whereas the dramatic parts of Ip Man are much more subtle (?).
Anyway, enough of that. Ip Man is a good movie that kept me engaged from beginning to end. That is, in part, accomplished due to Donnie Yen's exquisite performance as Master Ip. Completely laid back and not without a sense of humor, Master Ip clearly enjoys martial arts, but refuses to use them unless absolutely necessary. What more, he's also a dedicated family man who respects his wife but has a semi-estranged relationship with his young son. Yen is amazingly subtle in his performance, not unlike Jackie Chan's recent work in The Karate Kid (2010). There are two other stellar performances that deserve mention: Lam Ka-tung as Li Zhao, a police inspector turned translator for the Japanese and friend of Master Ip. Ka-tung's Zhao is put into impossible situations, and the actor perfectly conveys a man torn between making a living and assisting his friend. Fan Siu-wong plays Master Jin, a aggressive martial arts man who arrives in Fo Shang to fight the best of the best. Although he's not given a generous amount of screentime, Siu-wong's Master Jin certainty makes a impression with his bad boy, semi-super-crazy obsession with fighting.
As for the martial arts itself, it's quite marvelous. There's a scene where Master Ip is brought before a martial arts arena sanctioned by the Japanese and demands to fight ten people. Sorta brought memories of Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), although minus any sword and yellow jumpsuit. The way Master Ip beats up ten opponents with just his hands - pure awesomeness. In a earlier scene, Master Jin engages Ip in a duel, and by golly it's one of the coolest and funniest duels I've seen in awhile. Master Jin breaks something in Ip's house, clearly to Ip's displeasure, and Jin just barks back: "I'll pay!"
Directing and cinematography are equally as good as the duels, nicely capturing every punch and kick without shaking the camera uber-crazy like. During the Japanese occupation, the environment turns a dirty blue, not too dissimilar to The Road later last year. The film's first thirty minutes, depicting a more peaceful time, of course reflects the beautiful colors and fabrics one would expect from a Chinese period piece. Composer Kenji Kawaii (The Ring) also delivers a very suitable score, conjuring up the depression of China 1944, and the kick-ass awesomeness of the fight sequences.
Overall, Ip Man is a very entertaining movie with a great cast delivering great martial arts. A sequel was just released earlier this year in Hong Kong, so I'll definitely seek out the eventual American release on DVD. The movie may be unable to truly convey what the film's about, but at the very least audiences who thirst for action will be greatly pleased and audiences looking for a interesting protagonist who makes a stance for his country will be...well, pleased-ish. The flick's making the rounds at your local Redbox, so a rental is most definitely in order. Or if you can find the title for ten dollars or less, a blind buy is encouraged. One thing is for sure - I must pursue Donnie Yen's career with much more interest now...this guy rocks!