There is one historical fact about real-life martial arts master Ip Man that we can all agree on: the Wing Chun teacher was indeed Bruce Leeís master for several years in Hong Kong. Itís a fact that producer Raymond Wong Bak-Ming has no hesitation capitalizing on in Wilson Yipís biopic-action film Ip Man. However, the rest of the film is completely questionable, as Donnie Yen pretty much does what he does in all of his movies in which he possesses the title role: kick ass and ask questions later. In this supposedly true story, the legendary martial arts master kicks the asses of all of his opponents, and no one can stand in
|Donnie Ip Manís way.
But when heís not beating down fellow martial arts masters and Japanese generals, Ip Man is just a rich martial artist in the town of Fo Shan, which is famous for a local street lined with martial arts schools. Ip is not only respected in town for his incredible kung fu skills, but also for his modesty. In fact, heís so modest that he refuses to take on any students. Ironically, Donnie Yen is one of the least modest martial arts actors in Hong Kong, which makes his performance hard to take in at the beginning.
However, Donnie was able to put away his ego for Ip Man and gives his most subdued performance yet. To make Donnie even appear more subdued, everyone else overacts. Almost overdoing the overacting is Louis Fan, who hams it up as Master Jin, a kung fu master who arrives in Fo Shan from the north to start his own martial arts school by first beating down every competitor in town. Naturally, only Ip Man/Donnie can reclaim the townís honor, and thatís exactly what happens.
Being a China-Hong Kong co-production, Ip Man spends a majority of its screentime on the kung fu masterís life during the Japanese occupation. This gives an excuse for Yip and co. to satisfy the Chinese audienceís continuing desire to see Japanese ass get kicked by having Donnie/Ip Man do just that. General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) sends ex-policeman-turned-translator Li (Gordon Lam) to recruit Fo Shan martial artists to fight his team of cronies. Eventually, Miura is so impressed with Ip Manís martial arts skills that he asks the master to teach Chinese martial arts to his soldiers. This being a film intended for China, itís easy to guess what Ipís answer is. This being a Donnie movie, itís pretty easy to guess how he responds, too.
Actually, thatís the one other historical fact that screenwriter Edmond Wong gets right. According to whatever recorded history exists, Ip was indeed offered the job of teaching the Japanese martial arts during the occupation, and he did refuse out of principle. However, what Ip Man probably didnít do was beat down ten soldiers at once with lightning-speed punches to the neck. However, who really cares about historical accuracy when the action is this exciting? Action director Sammo Hung maintains a precarious balance between finesse and brutality in the fight scenes, giving them an adrenaline-pumping intensity that makes Ip Man an equal to SPL in the action department. Despite the usual Donnie posturing and pre-fight antics that can get tiresome, the action star does deliver what he does best when it counts.
Credit also goes to director Wilson Yip and scriptwriter Wong for striking a fine balance between action and drama. Each fight is focused and serves a purpose in the plot, making them easy to get involved in without feeling exhausted when itís over. Of course, it also helps that Hung leaves the action to real action-oriented actors such as Yen, Louis Fan, and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, who actually has a black belt in Judo. Knowing that these are actually people who have the physical ability to deliver whatís shown on screen significantly helps in getting into the fight scenes.
However, while Ip Man may be a success as an action movie, itís a failure as a biopic. The story is told in an episodic structure thatís more about what Ip can do rather than who Ip really was. The producers rely on too much on the audienceís good faith, and assume that their titular character is automatically a good man just because they tell the audience that he was Bruce Leeís master. Rather than a flesh-and-blood character, the Ip Man in Ip Man is more of a folk hero caricature.
Raymond Wong and Wilson Yip are obviously aiming for some kind of potential Once Upon a Time in China-like franchise by portraying Ip as a Wong Fei-Hung-level saint. However, the film plays too fast and loose with facts in order to please Chinese censors and the patriotic Chinese audience, and is unable to find a true-life story that delivers upon the filmís potential. For example, the real Ip escaped to Hong Kong and likely lost his wealth because he was a Kuomintang member - a fact conveniently ignored during the ending intertitles. Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, the film was made with the approval of Ipís eldest son, with the child actor who plays him getting plenty of random cutaway shots that make him a larger presence in the film than he deserves.
Without the crutch of the evil Japanese villains, it will be interesting to see where Wilson Yip takes Ip Man 2, which will presumably show the Wing Chun master taking his brand of ass-kicking to Hong Kong, where he becomes Bruce Leeís teacher. However, by then Hong Kongís favorite auteur Wong Kar-Wai will also be working on his own Ip Man biopic with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in the lead. Given that, it may have been wise for Wilson Yip to make Ip Man a pure action film without regard for real history. After all, Wong Kar-Waiís version will likely deliver better drama, acting and historical accuracy than Ip Man. But, as long as Donnie keeps delivering lightning-speed punches to his opponents for the rest of the Ip Man franchise, Yipís take on Ip will always be worth watching. (Kevin Ma, 2009)