Ip Man ***1/2
I remember watching “Iron Monkey” for the first time about six years ago and there was a kid in the movie named Wong Fei Hung who would be portrayed in countless films as China’s greatest patriot and champion, but in that particular film he was only a peripheral character and also a child but the eventualities of what he would do and become loomed large; I get a similar feeling from Ip Man, a martial arts biopic about the man who taught Bruce Lee Wing Chun, this film takes place in the years before Man taught Lee or even had his own martial arts studio. It ends with a climactic battle with a Japanese general some thirteen years before Lee was a student of Ip Man, but the shadow of Lee looms large especially if it’s all you know about Man going into the film and makes one yearn for the second half of Man’s life to be committed to film because “Ip Man” leaves off in exactly the right place. And I also want to know if they can find someone so perfectly suited to play Bruce Lee as Yen is to play Ip Man.
For all intents and purposes Ip Man’s story plays like the Chinese “Cinderella Man” or “Rocky IV” as a man fights for national and personal pride, to feed his family and goes up against a villain who seems monstrous but in his heart of hearts is fighting for at least one of the same reasons as the hero but is only portrayed as monstrous to amp up the tension. To be fair, Ivan Drago is probably the most unsympathetic of the villains while the real Max Baer felt bad for killing those men. General Sanpo is almost a fair balance of the other two, he believes in the sanctity of the martial arts battles and frowns upon another soldier killing a man who after losing a fight attempts to take the rice he was promised regardless of the fight’s outcome, but he still enjoys asserting Japanese dominance and at one point won’t accept the surrender of opponents. His smaller, mousier comrades are actually all bigger pricks than him despite the fact that his concept of a fair fight could use a little tweaking.
The film has a lot of strengths, the fight scenes by Sammo Hung are all pretty exceptionally well choreographed and also while not generally regarded as a plus the fights are relatively brief which works when you’re fighting for pride more than showmanship. However, unless Ip Man is one of the participants the showier pricks tend to win the battles. I guess you wouldn’t be much of a symbol of hope, a legend or a savior if you didn’t have to rescue people though.
The key element to the success of “Ip Man” is Donnie Yen, who plays Ip Man with lots of dignity and, when it rears its head, a controlled sense of fury. Man’s poise and fury comes from his never stated but possibly unconscious desire to assert Wing Chun as a man’s martial art. He never looses his cool when an opponent calls him a bitch for practicing a woman’s martial art (Wing Chun was invented by a woman), but he swiftly confidently kicks lots of ass and in a tongue-in-cheek moment uses a feather duster while an opponent uses the obviously showier sword. Man’s wife also yells at him to be the aggressor lest all the antiques in the house get broken. Whatever the case may be, Yen takes every opponent, every hardship in stride and adds a third trophy to his case of bad ass martial arts dudes after “Sha Po Long” and “Flashpoint.”
If you like inspirational sports films (which you do if you’re human), biopics and ass kicking of a pretty high order then “Ip Man” will probably make your vagina tingle.