Welcome to the first edition of “Fight Nerd Cinema”, where we not only review a Martial Arts movie, but break down all of the elements and give you the full story behind the scenes of what made this film possible. In this edition, we look at Donnie Yen’s modern classic, “Ip Man”. This film has garnered many honors and good reviews, but does it warrant all the hype and is it really as good as others claimed? Let’s find out!
Spoiler free synopsis:
Fo Shan, a province in China that was also home to the legendary Wong Fei Hung, has become renowned for its various martial arts schools in the 1930’s. Ip Man, played by Donnie Yen, lives in this province and has the reputation for being the best martial artist, yet refuses to teach other students and barely fights anyone as he is too busy drinking tea and eating. Selfish, neglectful of his wife Cheng (Lynn Hung) and son, and in no need of money due to his own private wealth, he is the Paris Hilton of Kung Fu.
Master Ip’s fame grows when he bests a local instructor, and then saves the honor of the entire town when he defeats a Northern Kung Fu master named Jin (played by Fan Siu-wong ) who has beaten up all the other teachers in town. But the times are changing when in 1937, the Japanese invade China, murdering thousands and causing very hard times for the entire nation. The Japanese army confiscates Ip’s house to turn into their headquarters, forcing him and his family to become homeless and destitute.
His wife growing sick and food running low, Ip gets hired as a manual laborer in a coal mine to make ends meet. It’s here that we meet the sadistic Colonel Sato, who tells them that General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a practitioner of Karate, has offered the Chinese martial artists the chance to win bags of rice by fighting Japanese soldiers. After learning what has happened to his friend at the hands of those same soldiers, Ip finally takes a stand and this is where the film truly begins, showing the struggle of one man against an entire nation.
Now that you know the story without spoilers, let’s get down to the real stuff – the action!
The Inside Scoop:
Much like the struggles within the film, the process of getting “Ip Man” made on the big screen was a journey unto itself. Beginning in 1998, the first incarnation of this biography had a larger role for Bruce Lee, who was ultimately cut out of this film other than a mention at the end. The original studio that was going to film the movie went out of business, thus leaving Wong with nothing but a script and a dream. With the consent of Ip Man’s sons, producer Raymond Wong traveled to Fo Shan to research the character as much as possible and soon had himself a script, cast and stunt team. The next problem was dealing with another studio’s version of Ip Man’s story, and a legal battle ensued over the rights to the name of the films which Wong ultimately won.
Donnie Yen agreed to star as Ip as far back as the initial casting, but all sorts of problems arose that pushed back production to nearly a decade later and even by then he was reluctant to take on the role. After his performance in “Flash Point”, Yen wanted some time off but was too attracted to the role to give it up (plus he had received part of his acting fee back in ’98 so was obligated to be in it still).
Despite the taxing problems of pre-production, the film was soon rolling with Wilson Yip sitting in the directors chair. Yip had worked with Yen previously in several other films, although it should be noted that Yip started his career with horror and thriller films, including his version of “Dawn of the Dead” called “Bio-Zombie”. Stunt coordinator Tony Leung Siu-hung was brought in to help with the fights, with Sammo Hung handling choreography duties. With this team together, “Ip Man” was made and the rest is history.
I am going to spare you the lecture on inconsistencies between the real Ip Man and the movie version, and just focus on the portrayal of the character of Ip by Yen. Donnie Yen does his rendition of Ip Man, in spite of the source material being changed dramatically. “I wasn’t just acting the role — I actually lived it,” Yen said in an interview, ” I was totally in that world to come out as accurate as possible. My mind and spirit was all about playing Ip.. I would wear his clothes all around the hotel, drink tea the way he used to, and even changed the way I walked and talked… Ip is a lot more laid-back, so I adjusted my tempo, and slowed everything down.” Yen completely changed his life routines and spent much of his time with Ip’s sons to learn more about the man. Donnie’s devotion to the character shows in his acting and the nuances that turn Yen into the Wing Chun master.
Yen’s character hits his arc midway into the film, while watching another martial arts sifu battle multiple Japanese soldiers to earn his rice, then being shot in the head for no apparent reason. Ip instantly transforms from the selfish character that was too consumed with drinking tea to fight, into a man with a purpose, which was ultimately what was missing from his life in the first place. Never in his life has he wanted to fight, but as the film progresses, he learns that he has no other choice and that the world is not quite as easy as he used to think it was.
In the scene following his fight against the ten karateka’s, Ip berates his former friend who has become a traitor to the Chinese people just to “scrape a living”, and walks away, only to have to move out of the way for an oncoming truck full of Japanese soldiers. Here, Ip realizes that his world has truly turned upside down as friends have become enemies and he is literally one man against an army. Yen’s subtle performance shows us a man dealing with an internal battle while having to literally fight for his life in a time of war.
The use of color, and sometimes lack of, is a key element in this film. In the beginning, the colors are vibrant and alive like the thriving province of Fo Shan. Once the Japanese invade, the film becomes more sepia toned with faded colors. By the time that things are at their worse with the Japanese soldiers mercilessly beating up the Chinese martial artists, the screen is practically black and white other than the occasional mouthful of blood. By the time the final fight rolls around, color slowly comes back to parallel the start of the movie when Ip was full of life before the invasion. Reborn now as a fighter, the color returns as the hope of his people comes back after his fight with Miura.
The ensemble cast that supports Yen includes Simon Yam, Chen Zhihui, Fan Siu-wong and other strong actors who add to the depth of the film, but the relationship with Lynn Hung as Ip’s wife is barely explored. The film spends more time on the nationalist messages than it does on how his actions affect those he loves. I loved the character of Jin, who could have been the main villain himself if it wasn’t for Hiroyuki Ikeuchi as General Miura. Miura’s bad nature comes from dedication to his country , while Jin shows how war can divide a people of the same country, but both can be boiled down to pride as the motives for their actions.
“Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting” – the action scenes:
You know when Sammo Hung is the action director that you are in for a treat. Sammo knows how to give fights their own special language, and his eye for using the camera never fails to get the viewer as close into the action as they can, making the fights even more intense.
We get the opening fight with Ip Man vs Master Liu, out-of-towner Jin fighting a local sifu and then Ip Man, General Miura against the three kung fu fighters, the infamous scene with Ip Man battling 10 karateka’s, the factory brawl, and the final fight with General Miura, with each fight unique unto itself. Sammo can read a script and break down a fight to fundamental elements of not just action, but emotion. The opening fight is a light-hearted fight with Ip Man playing with his opponent, easily overwhelming him and after trouncing him, thanking his undermatched opponent for “taking it easy” on him. Only a few minutes later when he fights Jin, the tone dramatically changes in both the choreography and cinematography, reinforcing the image of Jin as a monster and a threat.
Ip Man is established as the best Kung Fu master early on. After all, who else can dispatch with a crazed swordsman by using a feather duster? At the same time, he is also lazy and does not care to fight, only doing it when absolutely forced to. The fight where he battles the ten Japanese soldiers is the turning point in the film (and also my favorite fight in the film), when Ip’s full potential is realized, and is also the most brutally realistic of all the fights. This was one of the most powerful fight sequences that I have seen shot for its harsh realism, tonality and emotional content. The Japanese have driven Ip to fight not for his own purposes, but for his nation, and this is what it will take to get freedom back. The shot immediately following the fight of Ip’s bloodied and bruised knuckles is symbolic of Ip literally getting his hands dirty at last, and being reborn.
When General Miura is first established in his fight against the three Chinese martial artists, there is practically no color in the fight scene other than pale red blood, and the use of slo-mo shows us the strength and power of this character, forcing us to slowly watch as he takes apart his opponents. Everything he does is slow and calculated, leading up to the final fight scene against Ip Man in front of the Chinese people and the Japanese soldiers where we finally see him at full speed. The final fight between Ip and Miura is built up well as a battle between two nations, and perfectly demonstrates both Karate and Kung Fu without stereotyping the styles and approaching them both with great respect.
The camerawork is sharp and tells the story through its movements and how it captures every strike, mostly thanks to Sammo Hung. Hung has a reputation of being a very demanding director, and a story from the set was that Hiroyuki Ikeuchi suffered a mild concussion during his beatdown in the final scene. Yen also suffered a cut from an axe wound during the factory brawl, but luckily did not need stitches. You can literally say that the actors gave their blood, sweat and tears in this film!
“Ip Man” is one of the best martial arts movies I have seen and deserves the praise it has received. Yes, you can argue that the film is not historically accurate, and it isn’t, but for Western audiences I doubt that will be an issue. Most Western viewers will have a harder time grasping the nationalist message that is at the heart of this film, but most will be too wrapped up in the performance of Yen and the battle he fights inside and out. This will be the role that Donnie Yen is judged by for the rest of his career, and is a hard film to follow up against.
I give this film four out of five stars. This will be up there with the likes of “Drunken Master”, “Fist of Legend” and any other classic Martial Arts movie and deservedly so. “Ip Man” is the litmus test that all martial arts movies want to achieve now, and is beginning to break the mold of the perception of what people think Kung Fu style movies are. A must-see film, “Ip Man” is a moving story of one man who represents an entire nation and a great experience from start to finish. I highly suggest you grab “Ip Man” from Amazon.com on DVD right now if you already don’t own it!
On the subject of the finish… not to give away any spoilers, but if you have not figured out that Ip Man survived to teach Bruce Lee, you best get your butt to wikipedia and learn something. The film ends with an epilogue explaining a bit more about what happened to Ip, but seeing as how popular this movie was, a sequel was inevitable. Was it as good as the first? Find out next time when we take a look at “Ip Man 2”!