Saturday, November 28, 2009

IP MAN (2008)

Wilson Yip's biopic about the real-life Wing Chun master and mentor to Bruce Lee beat out John Woo's vaunted Red Cliff for Best Picture at the 28th Hong Kong Film Awards, though the only other award it won was for Sammo Hung's action choreography. That's a category conspicuously absent from American film awards, but no matter. I haven't seen Red Cliff yet (and in U.S. theaters it won't be the full-length movie anyway) so I don't know if I should consider this a rip-off, or if Chinese audiences felt that way. I do know that I liked Ip Man quite a bit.

High-conceptwise, think of Ip Man as a cross between Fist of Fury and Cinderella Man. Our title character is an independently wealthy landowner who stays amiably aloof from the highly-competitive martial-arts community in Foshan, though not aloof enough for the neglected Mrs. Ip. When one of the masters from "Martial Arts Street" comes over to challenge him to a duel, Ip Man invites him to share dinner before getting down to business. He's a model of courtesy; after manhandling his rival with little difficulty, he thanks the man for being lenient with him. Master Ip is civic-minded, however. When Master Jin storms the neighborhood with a band of bandits to prove the superiority of Northern boxing, it's up Ip to slap some respect into the barbarian with a devastating feather-duster attack. The fight is a joy to watch, something out of classic slapstick right down to Donnie Yen's taciturn Buster Keaton-like expression. He can be violent and non-violent at the same time. When a local cop scoffs at the masters, claiming that China needs arms and guns, not martial arts, Ip disputes his point by slapping the barrel out of the officer's pistol. But even the embarrassed officer cheers him on when he drives Jin out of town and becomes the hero of Foshan.

Choose your weapons: Ip Man (Donnie Yen, right) dusts off Master Jin (Fan Siu-Wong)

Like Kung Fu Hustle, Ip Man is set in an idyllic 1930s that must be seen as a sort of golden age by many Chinese, but inevitably 1937 rolls around and the Japanese arrive in force. These predatory invaders devastate the Foshan economy, confiscate Ip Man's property, and force him and his little family out onto the street. This is the Cinderella Man part of the movie as Master Ip learns to use his hands for manual labor rather than martial arts practice in order to keep his wife and son from starving. He gives up Wing Chun, explaining that practice makes him hungry when there isn't much food to go around.

Nevertheless, once he lands work spreading coal (after turning down an offer from a textile mill he'd invested in in better days) his ears prick up along with those of other ex-masters when the Japanese occupiers issue a challenge: their karate men vs. Chinese martial artists, with a bag of rice for any Chinese who can beat a Jap. This show is run by General Miura, a genuine martial-arts enthusiast who is the nearest thing this patriotic film will allow to a "good Jap." He has a definite code of honor compared to his underlings, and doesn't like his dojo being used for summary executions. When word reaches Master Ip that the Japs have shot down one of his old buddies, he demands to fight ten karate guys at once. He defeats them easily with attacks that are heavy with rapid-fire pummeling and limb snapping, but refuses to accept his ten bags of rice as a reward. Instead, he delivers his pal's bloodstained bag of rice to his grieving family.

That's gotta hurt! (above and below)

The Japanese aren't the only problem in Foshan. Jin's bandits are still lurking in the countryside, hijacking trucks and running an extortion racket on the textile mill Ip had invested in. Concerned about Japanese retaliation for his humiliation of their karate men, Ip tries to lay low, but news of the textile mill's distress draws him there to train the employees in Wing Chun. Under his leadership, they rout Jin's gang, but in an offscreen development Jin rats out Ip to the Japs. At first, Gen. Miura isn't that menacing. He just wants Ip to teach him and his soldiers Wing Chun. When Ip refuses, Miura's underlings start torturing people to find the master. Ip gives himself up to save his friends at the textile mill, on the condition that Miura meet him in a martial-arts duel. Miura accepts despite his minions' reservations and their readiness to shoot Ip if the fight goes his way. The stage is set for a peaceful cultural exchange demonstrating the eternal friendship of Japan and China -- yeah, right....

Gen. Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, standing) makes Ip Man an offer he can't refuse without a fight (below).

When it comes to Millennial Chinese martial-arts cinema I prefer the old-school kung fu movies to the often-overblown, FX-ridden stuff. Ip Man is a solid human-scale martial-arts film in the mold of Fearless, with lavish art direction and genuinely award-worthy action choreography from the honored Mr. Hung. Donnie Yen was nominated for Best Actor and I was genuinely impressed with his acting as well as his fighting. He handles the comedy of the first act adeptly, never blowing his cool, and his stoicism keeps the middle section from getting maudlin. He has a very good scene after his one-vs.-ten battle when he tells his wife that he now feels useless because he had never been more than a dilettante, had never really done anything useful with his talent before. It's an unusual moment of introspection in a kung fu movie and Yen makes it work.

From the set design to the fighting I found Ip Man a treat to watch, and I'd recommend it to any martial-arts fan who likes dynamic action with wirework kept to a reasonable minimum. For everyone else it's an unpretentious treat that doesn't go overboard with gore or CGI but gives you a genuine hero standing up to occupation and oppression. It's a pretty common story around the world but you can't tell it enough.

This English-subtitled trailer, uploaded to YouTube by freedomlover7, includes some authentic shots of the real Ip Man, including some money-shot photos of him with protege Bruce Lee.

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

FIST OF FURY and CINDERELLA MAN? That's some cross there! And I'm admittedly surprised that the film trumped RED CLIFF at the Hong Kong awards, as Woo is venerated there. To be truthful Samuel, I have avoided seeing RED CLIFF these past weeks for precisely the reason you relate here. I am simply not interested in an abidged version. I did like CROUCHING TIGER, HERO, and FLYING DAGGERS so I'm certainly not adverse to this genre as a number of friends are. Very nice work here again.