I cannot claim to be any sort of serious historian when it comes to Yip Man’s life, but all evidence leads me to believe the story of his life in the new biopic from China, “Ip Man“, is largely fabricated or romanticized. Never the less, the end result is an entertaining film with some serious Wing Chun fight scenes, a martial art that gets far too little screen time considering the copious amount of martial arts films that are produced. This is significant to me since I study Wing Chun in a lineage that comes directly from Yip Man.
This film is sort of in the style of biopic similar to Jet Li’s “Fearless“, a movie about a Chinese folk hero, Huo Yuanjia. I think it is more important for a film like this to be entertaining than it is for it to be historically accurate, and “Ip Man” does succeed in this regard. My main point of criticism, particularly in regards to “Ip Man”, is how events are twisted in a way to rally national pride in China. It always reminds me of a sort of Mel Gibson type of thing to do and puts me off a little. “Ip Man” is not as obnoxious in this regard as Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” or “Curse of the Golden Flower“, however. Those movies seem to have a message of obedience. You know, “Trust your ruler even though they do terrible shit to you sometimes. In the end, they know what’s best for you”. In the case of “Ip Man”, the title character is plunged into the middle of the Japanese-Chinese conflicts of World war II, probably playing a much larger role than he did in real life, and they show him as a sort of folk hero along the lines of Huo Yuanjie or Wong Fei Hong.
Never the less, the film flows well. All of these elements make enough dramatic tension between the excellent combat sequences to keep the movie engaging. Some of the plot twists are extremely predictable, which doesn’t interfere too much. This is a martial arts movie, after all. There is probably a bit too much dramatic tension, particularly towards the end of the film, with epic music pushing the mood of the movie, along with various camera effects. Besides, turning Yip Man into a legendary folk hero does make for an interesting dramatic character.
I couldn’t complain about Donnie Yen’s overall performance. His acting job was good enough to be convincing. His martial arts performance was visually striking. The choreographer, who I understand to be Sammo Hung, did a great job making Yip Man seem like an untouchable badass. In a lot of recent movies, particularly Jet Li films, a lot of the martial arts sequences show big, long, epic combat scenes where the hero narrowly overcomes and triumphs. In this movie, Donnie Yen gets to simply brutalize his opponents. I mean, he seriously comes out with the (unrealistic)chain punches. This is not done without being poignant, but they definitely make a point of showing Yip Man as being somewhat untouchable and peerless. It seemed more Clint Eastwood than Jet Li, which it kind of works.
My other concern was whether this would be a sort of “Brucesploitation” film, since, among Yip Man’s other notable accomplishments, he was the teacher of Bruce Lee. It would seem natural to want to capitalize on this given Lee’s popularity. Fortunately, there wasn’t too much “Brucesploitation” going on, but it did seem there was a bit. There is one combat scene where Yip Man is facing off ten Japanese karate guys. The sequences are filmed in a very strikingly similar way to a famous scene in “Fist Of Fury”, where Lee dispatches a whole dojo of Japanese karate students after they dishonored Lee’s kung fu school. There is also a combat sequence in a factory that is strikingly similar to a scene in “The Big Boss” where Lee fights in an ice factory, protecting the workers. However, my guess is that these are nods of respect or tribute rather than exploitation, so seem harmless. There was some mention in the end titles of Lee, but the copy I watched did not have that translated, so I am not sure what was even mentioned.
All that said, if you enjoy martial arts movies, this is definitely a good film. I have my share of complaints, particularly in the department of historical accuracy. However, the overall production is top-notch, and martial arts performances are a nice change of pace. I’d recommend giving it a look if you are any sort of fan of martial arts movies.
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