Chinese action drama Ip Man (2008), written by Edmond Wong, was meant to be the first of a successful film series starring charismatic Donnie Yen. Even though the biopic often strays from the facts, it succeeds in delivering an engaging narrative amidst impressive fight scenes – which is quite rare for this genre.
Set in the city of Foshan in the late 1930s, Ip Man is a master of wing chun (Southern Chinese martial arts style), who stands out for his ethos and humility while combating other sifus behind closed doors, in order to preserve their dignity. He soon sees his peaceful and prosperous life fall to pieces when Japan invades China. Working at a local mine to help his family survive, Ip Man is faced with challenges that put his skills to the test in General Miura’s (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) dojo – who deems karate to be superior to other martial arts.
Ip Man stands out for its balanced character-driven plot, blending myth with reality in the name of honour and perseverance. Wilson Yip directs an emblematic feature film that boasts exceptional one-on-one fight scences, as well as a clear storyline from beginning to end. Ip Chun, real-life Ip Man’s eldest son, and martial arts master Leo Au-Yeung acting as technical consultants is also something worth noting.
Sammo Hung and veteran fight/stunt coordinator Tony Leung Siu-hung have created perhaps the most memorable fight choreographies since Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury or Enter the Dragon. When Ip Man is called to fight against ten blackbelt opponents, and finally Miura himself, his once-cool composure and restraint all but fade into lethal punches and brutal kicks.
It’s almost hard not to feel a nationalistic surge of emotions until the very end, when the crowds chant Ip Man’s name. The Japanese are shown in the cruel colours of the oppressors – except for Miura perhaps, who exerts the kind of authority that allows him to shine as the story’s antagonist. The supporting cast deserves an honourbale mention for its performance as well, with Ka Tung Lam stealing the spotlight as the hated translator, who does what he can for his family, and Tenma Shibuya as sadistically deranged Colonel Sato.
Apart from his almost superhuman agility and movement, Yen’s performance incorporates such raw emotion and grace, that it brings the philosphical dimensions of wing chun to the foreground, as recorded in Ip Man’s surviving Rules of Conduct manuscript (Wing Chun Jo Fen, 葉問詠春祖訓). These nine basic rules permeate the behaviour of the lead actor, casting light on how wing chun, as a valuable teaching code, can deeply educate and change not only the individual practicioner, but society as a whole.
This is perhaps one of the best action films to have been released over the past decades, fully deserving its awards and fame. It goes beyond a simple martial arts film, touching on themes of postcolonial identity and racialised masculinity. Lastly, even though the jury is still out on whether the sequel is better, one thing is certain – it’s a great opportunity to begin learning more about the real Ip Man and his monumental contribution to martial arts.