Killer Imports: Ip Man

Killer Imports is a regular feature on Film Junk where we explore foreign-language films from around the world that haven’t yet had their chance to shine.

Ip Man is a martial arts movie based on a real person. Previously, I had only known Ip Man as Bruce Lee’s Wing Chun instructor. I had not known how renowned a figure he is in China. I don’t even really know how much of the movie is factual. One only has to view Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story to see how filmmakers can distort the events in someone’s life.

Wing Chun is a martial art that has not been given much exposure in Western films even though Bruce Lee was a practitioner who extended some of the concepts for his own martial art. I must admit that my limited knowledge is based on having my brother demonstrate the techniques on me. The techniques are so unusual that if you were to implement them in a one-on-one bar fight, I’m sure you could pummel any bar patron not familiar with the techniques.

There are two aspects of Wing Chun that have always intrigued me. One is the training method of “sticky hands” where opponents stand facing each other about a yard apart with arms bent forward and wrists touching the opponent’s wrists. With an economy of movement, the opponents try hitting each other with face and body blows while maintaining arm contact and using pushing, yielding and redirection. Grabbing and elbow striking are allowed with the opponents returning to the original position after a strike. Now don’t take my description as being official because I’m not a licensed Wing Chun instructor. The other aspect is the “straight blast” or “chain punching” technique that involves wind-milling your fists in front of you. Anyway, both of these aspects are displayed to great effect in Ip Man.

The martial arts actor playing Ip Man is none other than Donnie Yen who coincidentally starred in Painted Skin, which I reviewed two weeks ago. In that review, I mentioned how I had gotten bored of Donnie Yen’s fighting style. Well, Donnie Yen hasn’t used Wing Chun in any other film I’ve seen of his, so I have to say that Donnie Yen’s fighting skill in this movie is mesmerizing to watch. For the record, there is some wire-work in Ip Man, so the fighting isn’t all realistic

Much praise should probably go to the action director Sammo Hung. If you don’t already know, he’s a legendary actor and director in martial arts films. He had his own American series, Martial Law, some years ago. In Enter the Dragon, he was Bruce Lee’s somewhat fat opponent at the beginning of the film. (As a side observation, it has always bugged me that Bruce Lee’s opponents in Enter the Dragon didn’t seem like much of a challenge. Sammo is unusually skilled for a fat guy, but he didn’t seem formidable in Enter the Dragon. Lee’s other opponents were a slow American, a bunch of scrawny minions, and an elderly Chinese guy. On the other hand, it’s now a cliché that the climax of a martial arts film involves the hero fighting a formidable opponent. Actually, Bruce Lee’s Return of the Dragon followed this formula with Chuck Norris as the ultimate baddie Lee fights at the end. But even having some Karate championships under his belt, Chuck still seemed flabby and not worthy of Bruce Lee in my opinion.)

Ip Man starts with the man already skilled in Wing Chun and practically unbeatable in his town in China just before World War II. We never know how he got to be so skilled or why he got involved with Wing Chun in the first place. This eliminates all the potentially dramatic, but action-less, back story that usually comes with biopics. He has a wife and young son, both of which tend to get ignored over practice fighting with friends. (His wooden dummy for practicing “sticky hands” is affectionately inscribed with the word “wife” in Chinese.) Donnie Yen’s limited acting range is well suited for playing Ip Man because Chinese men stereotypically hide their emotions (except for anger). There is an air of arrogance and condescension that Ip Man seems to have behind his outward display of humility. If he wasn’t able to awe you with his ability, then you might find him unlikeable.

There is the requisite village outsider who comes to challenge all the master teachers of martial arts clubs in town. He is played by Siu-Wong (aka Louis) Fan whom you may recognize if you’ve ever seen the gore classic Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky. There is some mild humor during the Ip Man fight sequences as martial arts seems to be about having fun while disciplining the mind and body. And then the Japanese invasion occurs.

Ip Man is somewhat like Jet Li’s Fearless in which martial arts becomes a way to demonstrate nationalistic superiority. Unlike Fearless, Ip Man does not attempt to be politically correct in showing any redeeming qualities of the Japanese. In this regard, Ip Man becomes like Bruce Lee’s Chinese Connection or its remake, Jet Li’s Fist of Legend. It is interesting to see how Ip Man deals with the Japanese invasion. How does a seemingly invincible fighter deal with an invading force with firearms given that this movie is based in reality? I’ll give you the answer, because I wouldn’t want you going into the film expecting some brilliant solution. He endures the occupation, willingly giving up his grand residence and well-off lifestyle. Initially, anyway. Of course (and I hope this isn’t ruining the film for you), there’s a final showdown with a Japanese general played by Hiroyuki Ikeuchi.

The movie does offer an explanation as to why Ip Man changes his mind about something of which we are made aware at the beginning of the movie. I’ll let you discover this on your own.

The director, Wilson Yip, has directed three recent Donnie Yen films: Flash Point, Dragon Tiger Gate, and SPL (aka Kill Zone). As I’ve mentioned previously in the Painted Skin review, each of these films has moments of awesomeness. There’s a scene in SPL where the camera tracks Donnie Yen as he runs towards a stationary car, jumps on it, pulls the driver out from the window, and proceeds to pummel him. For anyone who’s ever had road rage, this scene will have you cheering (even though the scene has nothing to do with the driver being a bad driver).

Ip Man is beautifully shot. There’s a scene with the Japanese general talking to his captain in a hallway with hanging lamps. Each light only illuminates a small area with the rest of the background in darkness. It’s gorgeous!

Ip Man is well-paced. I never felt bored at any point. There’s something about the way period martial arts films are being done nowadays that makes them more appealing to me than the older martial arts films like the Shaw Brothers classic films. Nowadays, the stories aren’t any better, but the production values are higher. The sound effects are better. The music is better. The acting is perhaps more naturalistic. And the fighting seems less choreographed. To see whether my tastes had changed, I watched Sammo Hung’s 1977 classic, The Iron-Fisted Monk, recently. For the most part, I was bored. I also remember being disappointed by Donnie Yen’s Iron Monkey, a film that Quentin Tarantino championed.

During the same shopping session in which I purchased Ip Man, I picked up another Chinese DVD called Shuang Long Ji. Coincidentally, the fighting style used is Wing Chun and Sammo Hung plays a role, although he’s not on the DVD cover. The awkward fade out transitions seemed strange until I later found out that this movie was edited together from a Chinese 2007 television series called Wing Chun!

The Afro-Brazilian martial art, Capoeira, became widely used in movies and television as a result of being popularized by the Bourne movies. I’m thinking that Wing Chun could become popular if Ip Man manages to catch the fancy of Westerners, but Wing Chun might require more skill to be impressive.

Some people might complain about the hackneyed storytelling, but the thrill of seeing Wing Chun in action makes watching the tale of a single man fighting oppression seem fresh again. If you don’t want to wait for a North American distributor to decide to release this, then I suggest you purchase the available Hong Kong import DVD or Blu-ray. There’s a sequel already planned or even in production, and another biopic of Ip Man scheduled for release. Ip Man is one “flavor of the month” that I’m currently savoring.

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  • Henrik

    I think Capoeira got famous from Eddie in Tekken 3. I have a hard time imagining you’re actually thinking of Capoeira, does he really do that shit in Bourne? Not in the 3rd one definitely, which I’ve seen.

    Funny fact: I actually took Capoeira for a couple of weeks, and was told that I was a ‘natural’. One of the most exhausting things I’ve ever done. It was half martial arts, half dance, and 20% boyscouts (you do the math), since every session ended with a circle where people played music and sang, while ‘fights’ would take place in the center.

  • cronenfly

    Hey Reed you should check out Master Of The Flying Guillotine from Jimmy Wang Yu. It kicks tons of ass! and features music by NEU!, and Kraftwerk!!!