Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ip Man

Uh-oh.  Ip Man commits one of the cardinal sins of martial arts films.  Not the "let's have a bad white actor do kung fu" rule that has been broken so many times by Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal.  No, the other rule.  "Don't compare yourself to Bruce Lee."  Is there an easier way to underwhelm an audience than by directly comparing your movie's action scenes to the most amazing martial artist to ever get captured on film?  The answer is "no."  I cannot believe that a modern movie (made in 2008, but not released in America until 2010) would be stupid enough to sabotage its reputation like that.  What's even more surprising is that this movie is really, really good.

Set in 1930s Foshan (in southern China), Ip Man begins by establishing the status quo for the titular character (pronounced in the film as "EEP mun").  Foshan is a city renowned for its martial arts schools.  It seems like just about everyone in town is enrolled in one school or another; friendly, informal duels are a commonplace way to determine whose kung fu is best.  Ip Man (Donnie Yen) practices the supposedly feminine art of Wing Chun, but he doesn't get much grief about it.
Clarification: Wing Chun is a form of kung fu.  Wang Chung is, apparently, being eternally punished for their 80s sins.
Ip Man is kind of like Foshan's Superman.  Most of the time, he is unassuming and humble, like Clark Kent.  But, whenever a challenge cannot be refused, he quietly flips on his "tough guy" switch and beats the living hell out of anyone silly enough to challenge him.  His quiet act doesn't fool anyone in town, they all know that he is the greatest marital artist in a city known for martial arts, just like Metropolis knows that Clark "great disguise" Kent is really Superman.  But, since Ip is a pretty chill fellow, he is just a nice, independently wealthy guy who happens to whomp on others in friendly sparring matches.

In 1937, the Japanese invade Foshan, and everything changes.  I know, I was shocked too, when I learned that Ip didn't single-handedly defeat the Japanese forces, but this story is loosely based on a real person.
This is how a real man handles WWII, Ip!
Ip Man's wealth is gone and he does his best to work for whatever sparse food he can earn.  Eventually, Ip learns that Japanese General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) is willing to give a bag of rice to any Chinese man that can defeat one of his Japanese martial arts experts.  Sensing danger, but seeing no better chance to improve his lot, Ip joins the Chinese men who are willing to challenge the Japanese.  I wonder if this leads to Ip beating up a room full of Japanese men?  Why yes, it does.  But what good can martial arts do, ultimately, against military force?  If you're Ip Man, you can band together a city and ignite some hope in their hearts.  Aww!

When I watch most martial arts movies, the plot is just a nuisance that takes up space until the hero kicks somebody's head off.  Ip Man actually has a well-written and -executed plot, filled with interweaving plot lines.  Ip goes from reluctant hero to a symbol for his countrymen; initially reluctant to take on students, Ip eventually teaches dozens of men, women, and children to defend themselves against bandits; Ip's wife, Cheung Wing-sing (Lynn Hung), swings from hating Ip's fighting to supporting him, regardless of her own safety.  It was nice to see a kung fu flick that wasn't just a revenge story, but it was even better to actually stay interested in what was going on in the movie when people weren't fighting.  There was a surprising amount of humor in the film, too --- well, at least in the non-WWII part --- and it translated well, which was another surprise.  And the action was pretty sweet.  Every martial arts star has their own style of awesome (Bruce Lee was lightning-fast; Sonny Chiba was dirty and brutal; Tony Jaa leaps six feet in the air to knee you in the face, etc.), and this was my first exposure to Donnie Yen's moves.  I don't know if this was his usual style or not, but this is the first martial arts movie I have seen that felt like a classic Bruce Lee movie.  All of his moves are good, but the best is when Yen treats his opponents like speed bags, landing dozens of punches in a matter of seconds.  While Donnie Yen should be acknowledged for his athleticism, I'm going to credit Sammo Hung, the fight choreographer and the famously fat kung fu star, for most of this movie's awesome sequences.

This is some of the best acting I have seen in a martial arts film, too.  Donnie Yen is pretty good as Ip Man, but the big surprise in this film is that his required moment of doubt was an existential one, not because some dudes stole his girlfriend/elephant/child or killed his parent/sibling/master.  My next favorite character was Jin, the rude Northerner that disrespected Foshan's kung fu abilities.  He was tough, funny, had great facial expressions and was played by Louis  Fan, star of Ricki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, the most comically gory martial arts movie ever.  The other actors were pretty solid, too (another surprise for kung fu flicks), but none of them really stood out to me.  Similarly, the direction from Wilson Yip wasn't fantastic, but I was able to follow the story easily --- always a concern in foreign films, and especially noteworthy with a fairly complex plot --- and the movie looked good.  Apparently, Yip and Yen have made several movies together; I'm definitely going to check some of those out in the near future.

Ip Man is supposed to be based on the real life of the man who eventually went on to mentor Bruce Lee.  As far as I can tell from a few minutes of internet research, there isn't a whole lot of truth in the film, but that didn't bother me because I had never heard of Ip Man before the movie.  If you are a true fan of the martial arts, though, you might want to roll your eyes a bit ahead of time, because the movie plays with its facts pretty liberally.  Aside from that, my only complaint for this movie is that Ip never fought an opponent that seemed like an equal.  He was just better than everyone.  This movie wasn't about a fighting championship or anything like that, so I guess that makes some sense.  It was still awesome, but I'm hoping that there will be a better challenge in Ip Man 2.

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