Ip Man: The Man, The Myth, The Movies

We look through the life in film of a legendary martial artist – the man who trained Bruce Lee and inspired a few movies of his own...

Donnie Yen as Ip Man

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

After Bruce Lee’s death at the height of his fame in 1973, Hong Kong filmmakers raced to capitalize on his stardom. With the kung fu craze booming, almost every facet of Bruce’s life – and plenty of glorious nonsense like a fight against Dracula – got turned into a movie. Lookalikes with new names like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, and Bruce Leung became some of the most prolific kung fu stars of the era, and “Bruceploitation” became a prominent subgenre.

Perhaps because these films were mostly sold to the west, one part of Bruce’s life that was rarely explored was his early life in Hong Kong and his Wing Chun training with Ip Man. We see representations of Ip Man in a couple of older Bruceploitation movies like Bruce Lee: The Man, The Myth (1976) and later in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) but – astonishingly – it took until 2008 to get a full-length feature about his life. Beyond being Bruce Lee’s beloved “sifu,” Ip Man was a key figure in 20th-century martial arts, credited with perpetuating the popularity of Wing Chun as a style, and his life feels more obviously cinematic than most, peppered as it is with triumph and agony…

Born in 1893 in Foshan, Ip Man enjoyed an affluent upbringing as the son of a local merchant. He began his Wing Chun training at the age of 12 and informally taught it to select friends until World War II, when he signed up for the military. Ip suffered greatly under the Japanese occupation of China, eventually leading to the loss of their wealth, home, and business. Along with his wife and children, Ip continued to live on the poverty line, even after WW2, as civil war broke out and China was torn in two. He served as a police captain but was forced to flee Foshan for Hong Kong in 1949 when the Communists won and his life was under threat.

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He was 51 and penniless when he arrived in Hong Kong, separated from his family and destitute. By chance in 1952, a martial artist called Leung Cheung found Ip Man wandering around Macao and took pity on him, having no idea who he was. He took him in and was shocked when, during a martial arts class Cheung was teaching, this frail and homeless old man started criticizing his technique. Cheung laid down a challenge and was unceremoniously beaten in minutes, surrendering himself and his class to Ip Man.

read more: The Real Life Stories Behind Martial Arts Movie Legends

This newly formed Wing Chun school kept growing in line with Ip’s reputation as a martial artist. It wasn’t a popular style at the time but by the time Bruce Lee – who learned it from Ip Man – put the spotlight on it in the ’60s, the rest was history. While Ip Man struggled with money and ill health (and a reliance on opium) in his later years, he lived to the age of 79 and his legacy continues today in his writings on Wing Chun and in the form of his son Ip Chun, who inherited the style.

Since the 1990s, a full-blown Ip Man biopic had been in discussion (initially with Corey Yuen attached) but one didn’t go into production until 2008, when Raymond Wong’s Mandarin Films announced theirs. Reliable action vet Wilson Yip was put in the director’s chair and his regular leading man Donnie Yen won the title role…

Ip Man (2008)

While it’s made with both respect and the full participation of Ip’s descendants (Ip Chun was the primary Wing Chun consultant on it), this is hardly a straight biopic but it’s still probably the Ip Man film that’s closest to the truth. It depicts a fictionalized version of his time in Foshan, tracing his fall from wealth, his struggle during the war and his refusal to ever give in to the enemy. In reality, Ip Man never fought the Japanese in anything like the way depicted here, but what the film offers is a beat-by-beat traditional martial arts plot that takes inspiration from the classics and becomes one in itself. I feel like if Bruce Lee had watched this, he would’ve loved it, and that’s about the best you can say about a kung fu movie.

The film recreates 1930s Foshan (by way of Shanghai) in a way that makes it feel like a living, breathing city. The set design is beautiful and it’s shot with great restraint – the opposite to Yip and Yen’s flamboyant previous film, the manhua-inspired Dragon Tiger Gate. Yen himself is nothing short of a phenomenon. It’s his most nuanced performance as an actor and he inhabits Ip Man in a way that, at times, makes him appear possessed by the Grandmaster’s spirit.

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Of course, where the magic really happens is in the fights. Sammo Hung and Tony Leung Siu-hung direct the action and stunts, respectively, so you know you’re in safe hands, but Yen’s physicality makes it fly out of the screen. He moves with such speed and grace, it looks superhuman, but he also pours a ton of emotion into it. This is what makes every action sequence in Ip Man so effective. Nothing is throwaway or gratuitous. All of the fights are charged with feeling and meaning.

read more: How the Shaolin Temple Movies Launched Jet Li’s Career

While the film shows off the moral and philosophical side of Chinese martial arts, it also speaks a more universal language; one of simple but powerful concepts. Honor, dignity, love, revenge, respect, and pain. I laughed with joy when Donnie Yen beat up a sword-toting Siu Wong Fan with a feather duster. I felt myself welling up when, in a fit of uncharacteristic rage, he took on 10 Japanese fighters at once. The mass brawl in the cotton mill is an absolute stunner and the final fight, while brief, is like a bold, bloody full-stop on a fantastic story. While it’s hugely entertaining, this is also action cinema as catharsis, both political and personal.

Unsurprisingly, the film was a massive hit all over the world and the Ip Man brand was born.

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Ip Man 2 (2010)

This fast-into-production sequel intended to focus on the relationship between Ip Man and Bruce Lee but the modern age is a far cry from the devil-may-care Bruceploitation era of the 1970s. Any commercial use of Bruce Lee’s image now has to be run by the lawyers of Bruce Lee Enterprises. When Mandarin Films failed to negotiate what they wanted, the film had to be rewritten (with Bruce relegated to a comedy cameo as a young child)…

Instead, Ip Man 2 (which reunites most of the key cast and crew from the first film) veers further from historical accuracy and ramps up the fist-pumping veneration of its subject, turning him more or less into a Chinese superhero.

Having fled occupied Foshan, Ip and his family move to Hong Kong under the rule of British and if you’re following the nationalistic vibe of these films, you can probably work out where this is going. However, it’s a film of two distinct halves. The first half involves Ip trying to set up a martial club in the ‘wild east’ world of ’50s Hong Kong.

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It’s a familiar rival schools plot that focuses on Ip’s new Wing Chun school proving themselves against the current rulers of the scene – a Hung Kuen school run by Sammo Hung as Master Hung. So you could say that Ip’s fate is in the hands of a Hung jury. Sorry. That was awful.

With his martial credentials proven, Ip joins forces with Hung in the second half and they take on a British boxer called The Twister who is arrogant, aggressive, and hates the Chinese. This almost totally copies the plot of Rocky IV with the countries changed and the runtime cut in two, but y’know. It’s a great formula for a sports movie so why not?

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Despite its energy, Ip Man 2 doesn’t stand up to the first film. Where that hit the perfect balance of drama versus action, this one overplays the drama so it feels saccharine at best and laughable at worst (Ip’s wife giving birth during the final fight could’ve been a strong symbolic juxtaposition but winds up just melodramatic).

Still, the action remains strong. Sammo Hung’s choreography is on point as always and it’s fantastic to see him on the big screen again in a decent role. As much as the first film was a showcase for Yen’s acting prowess, he knows how to take a backseat here and let Hung take the film. The veteran actor proves to be its heart and its fists and its most complex character, until right at the end when Yen steps up for the astonishing final fight – so brutal, you feel every punch – and we remember it’s an Ip Man movie.

The table fight between Hung and Yen is a highlight too and Wilson Yip directs with laser precision. The camera is constantly moving, the score always bellowing, everything’s turned up to 11 the whole time which keeps the energy buzzing. Ip Man 2 might not be a masterpiece but it sure is a fun ride.

watch Ip Man 2 on Amazon

Ip Man: The Legend Is Born (2010)

Produced concurrently with Ip Man 2, this lower budget little brother is an attempt to cash in on the craze with a bizarre mix of straight-faced authenticity and audacious levels of fiction. Long-serving exploitation/cult director Herman Yau – whose filmography includes some of the most gruesome horror movies Asia’s ever produced – takes the director’s seat and casts newcomer Dennis To (who bears a resemblance to both the young Ip Man and young Donnie Yen) as Ip Man, focusing his plot on the Grandmaster’s adolescence.

At first, this stays true to the real story of Ip Man’s early Wing Chun training from Chan Wah-Shun (Sammo Hung in a different role to the one he played in Ip Man 2 but wearing the same clothes, haircut, and moustache, as if he’s just stepped between sets!). When Master Chan dies, Ng Chung-Sok (played by the legendary Yuen Biao) takes over.

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Ip Man, not content with traditional forms of Wing Chun, seeks extra-curricular activities and trains in Hong Kong with the master Leung Bik (played by Ip Man’s actual son Ip Chun – who proves age really is just a number as he, an octogenarian, performs lightning fast fight choreography). While all this is happening, Ip Man falls in love with Cheung Wing-Sing, the woman who would later become his wife…

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So far, so reasonably accurate but then it throws in an outrageous plot involving Ip’s fictional adopted brother getting involved with Japanese criminals. By the time you’ve realised that the plot’s going so wildly off-piste it’s left the mountain, you’ll be too entertained by the swathes of ninjas comin’ atcha to really care. The Legend Is Born does a surprisingly great job of balancing fact with fiction to produce an entertaining film that somehow feels both preposterous and respectful.

The fights are lower-key than in the Wilson Yip films, less reliant on flashy camerawork and visual augmentation, but the choreography’s tight and there’s a huge number of styles on display, all expertly controlled by Tony Leung Siu-Hung. It’s amazing to see legends like Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, and Ip Chun in action and Dennis To holds his own against them all. The romantic plot works really well – much sweeter and more natural than in the Wilson Yip films – and this is, despite the lower budget, one of the best depictions of Ip Man on film.

The Grandmaster (2013)

Originally planned as far back as 2008 but stuck in Development Hell for five years, this Wong Kar Wai take on the story may not have beat Wilson Yip’s version to a release, but is tonally on the other end of the cinematic spectrum. The film begins with Ip Man (played by regular Wong Kar Wai muse Tony Leung) rising through the ranks of the Foshan martial arts community, before having to leave for Hong Kong. It weaves this together – using non-linear storytelling – with the completely fictional story of Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the heir to a kung fu style known as 64 Hands (essentially a derivative of Baguazhang), who’s avenging the death of her father and who falls in love with Ip Man.

It’s a Wong Kar Wai film through and through and he’s not a director you’d expect to shoot a straight kung fu picture. As a result, this dreamlike romantic film will confound many viewers and it does require a little work to go with its flow. There are times when the film’s visual poetry, the rhythm of the editing and the framing of the shots feel perfectly executed. It’s as if the film itself – each cut, each shot – is a series of intricate kung fu forms.

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At its best, the existential dialogue and melancholic sense of doom that hangs over it are quite breathtaking, but it’s not above reproach. At its worst, it’s one whisper away from a Calvin Klein advert (“Kung fu… by Wong Kar Wai…”). It’s languid, opulent, and hazy, an auteur’s undiluted vision of how he physically, spiritually, and philosophically views kung fu, told without any concession to narrative convention or accessibility. Ultimately, it’s your choice whether you let yourself get swept up in the dream or just sit there waiting for the alarm to ring.

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Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013)

Released the same year as The Grandmaster – arguably the height of Ip Man Fever – this sees Herman Yau return to the franchise, with a mostly different cast and crew to The Legend Is Born. Antony Wong now plays the Grandmaster and the story focuses on his time in Hong Kong throughout the ’50s and ’60s up to the end of his life. As ever, it’s heavily fictionalized, rattling through the factual beats of Ip’s life in the first 20 minutes before shifting its attention to an ensemble cast of his Wing Chun students.

The story feels loose and unfocused, as we follow each student through the trials and tribulations of life in poverty-stricken mid-century Hong Kong, guided by Ip’s wisdom and training. Instead of being presented as a superhero the way he is in the Wilson Yip movies, here Ip Man is painfully human. We see him suffer gastric problems and grief, and Wong’s performance – while nowhere near as twinkly as Donnie Yen’s – is impressively raw. Considering he apparently only signed on for the role because he was drunk when director Yau asked him, he does a convincing job of playing an aged Grandmaster learning life lessons late in the game.

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As a result of the slow pace and freeform structure, it never truly grips, and the action choreography (led by Ip Chun student Checkley Sin and one-time Jackie Chan stunt team leader Nicky Lee) is quite restrained. The best way to enjoy the film is arguably as a period piece. The atmosphere of old Hong Kong feels fantastically real here and it’s almost like peering in at a slice of life. It certainly won’t appeal to everyone but kitchen-sink drama is a nice change of pace for the series and it’s ultimately a nice, measured piece about the nature of Wing Chun and its place in a modern society.

watch Ip Man: The Final Fight on Amazon

Ip Man 3 (2015)

Five years after Ip Man 2, Donnie Yen reunited with Wilson Yip for another film, despite being apparently reluctant to do so. Yen felt the Ip Man market was oversaturated by now but, in the end, admitted it was what his fans wanted and gave in. This one picks up where the last one left off with Ip still in Hong Kong, going up against some gangsters (led by actual Mike Tyson) who want to take over the school where Ip’s son studies because it’s “prime real estate”. He’s also challenged by a rival Wing Chun fighter (Zhang Jin) and finds himself so preoccupied by all this, he doesn’t notice that his long-suffering wife (Lynn Hung again) is dying of cancer…

The fighting here is very different in style to the first two films. Part of this is that five years have passed and trends have changed, but also the choreography duties passed from Sammo Hung to Yuen Woo Ping (although Donnie Yen apparently handled a lot of it himself). Woo Ping’s style is more hyperkinetic and flashy and, while it’s impressive, it’s maybe a little too OTT to fully gel with the Ip Man style. Much of the action is shot with speedramping, which makes a fight hard to follow at the best of times anyway. The Wing Chun fight in a claustrophobic elevator is a very cool idea and the Mike Tyson bout does give great value, but both just peter out rather than build to explosive conclusions.

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There’s a heartbreaking tragedy to the idea of an invincible kung fu master who can beat everything except the cancer that threatens the life of his wife but the film doesn’t play well to this, instead focusing entirely on its existing political and philosophical themes. The emotional core fails to get beyond heavy-handed melodrama and, while the film has things to say about oppression, overcoming adversity in life and the importance of martial arts, it’s arguably nothing the first two films didn’t say.

Still, when taken out of context of the franchise’s existing high standards, Ip Man 3 is very entertaining, proving there’s really no such thing as a bad Ip Man movie. This is probably the role Yen will be remembered for and he continues to play it brilliantly, whether he wants to or not. It was also a phenomenal box office hit in the west, the word having finally spread about how good these movies are.

Watch Ip Man 3 on Amazon

The future of Ip Man on screen

Much like how it was with Bruce Lee in the ’70s, the current appetite for Ip Man stories shows no sign of reducing. In addition to the movies above, a 10 episode award-winning TV series aired in 2012 starring Kevin Cheng as Ip Man, and there are several new Ip Man films on their way to you as you read this.

Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy is a spin-off directed by Yuen Woo-Ping and came out in Hong Kong a few days before Christmas 2018. In this, Zhang Jin reprises his role as Cheung Tin Chi from Ip Man 3 and the film follows his life after his defeat at the hands of Ip Man. He seeks redemption by squaring off against local gangsters, naturally. With cameos from Michelle Yeoh and Tony Jaa, and Dave Bautista as the bad guy, this looks like it’ll be a treat for martial arts fans.

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What’s particularly exciting though is that Ip Man 4 wrapped last summer. Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen are back together and apparently this one finally tells the story of Ip Man and Bruce Lee. Kwok-Kwan Chan (from the epic Legend Of Bruce Lee TV series) plays Bruce and the brilliant Scott Adkins is also in the cast list. It’s hard to believe anything else will top this for the martial arts release of 2019 but we’ll see. Either way, it’s unlikely this is the last we’ll see of Ip Man on the screen and it’s heartening that – all these years after the Grandmaster’s death – these movies continue to spread his vision of Wing Chun throughout the world.