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