The Dilemma of a Master
My immediate impression of Wilson Yip's Ip Man was that it felt very similar to Ronny Yu's Fearless. It occurs to me that martial arts movies all feel of a certain piece these days -- they used to feel "dirty" and low budget, even when the fighters were enhanced by wires. Now they feel quite slick, polished, very produced. The fighting scenes are very conscientiously set up and then shot in a way to really show off the main character, and I suppose this makes sense in the case of both Fearless and Ip Man, since both movies are about rather legendary real-life figures. They lived in times close to each other and their stories follow similar paths, featuring a set-up which introduces us to their skills, a middle section presenting an introspective conflict, crises of foreign nation origins, and then a final battle showcase. And both men are renowned primarily for boosting the morale of their fellow countrymen, showcasing the strength of the Chinese people.
In the case of Ip Man, the titular hero, played by Donnie Yen, may be best known to Western audiences as the man who trained Bruce Lee. The movie tells the story of his life through the 1930s in the city of Foshan, where he is a local celebrity due to his unparalleled skill in martial arts. He's very wealthy and self-sufficient, taking on no students (unlike his friends and peers in the city), preferring to spend his days training. When the Japanese invade in 1937, he comes to realize that, despite all his skill, he is powerless to help his fellow countrymen while they are under the grip of their occupiers. Opportunity arrives and forces his hand when the stationed Japanese colonel shows great interest in martial arts, pitting the local Chinese fighters against his own Japanese martial artists for his personal interests.
The movie is clearly hagiographic, but this aspect and its general function as a martial arts movie are supported greatly by Yen. I still wonder how Yen hasn't managed to become as internationally recognized as Jet Li -- he's a pleasure to watch, and his fighting comes off as smooth, expert, efficient, and crisp. Ip Man has become perhaps his most prominent showcase after a career that mostly saw him playing martial arts antagonists; and yet the movie hasn't seen a U.S. theatrical release, instead making its stateside debut on video. In any case, his Ip Man is revealed to be something of a fresh change after all because unlike many movies about a fighter, his challenge doesn't lie in realizing maturity (this was indeed the route taken by Fearless); instead, it's one of self-realization and honor. When the movie begins, no one is more accomplished and more mature than Ip; but when the greater forces of war come crashing, he evaluates himself to find his proper place in the national destiny. The calm and affable Yen makes Ip Man easy to root for, both as a fighter and as a man with an adult dilemma that tests his ideals. This combination of personal journey, some eye-popping fight sequences, and the right star to deliver them allows Ip Man to rise to a satisfying height.
(Released by Well Go and rated "R" for violence.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.