It’s a sad fact that, a few occasional break-through movies aside, much of Hong Kong’s cinematic output fails to gain a significant audience in the West. Released in 2008, the martial arts movie Ip Man was colossally successful in the East, but didn’t even get a theatrical release in North America or Europe.
When I noticed that Ip Man would be screened as part of London’s Hong Kong Film Festival, I jumped at the chance to see this acclaimed movie on the big screen – and I’m glad I did, because director Wilson Yip’s fusion of historical drama and gritty martial arts is one of the finest films of its type, and deserves to be seen on a big screen, preferably with the kind of excitable, receptive audience I sat with.
Set in Southern China in the 1930s, the film introduces Ip Man (Donnie Yen), a remarkably adept practitioner of Wing Chun. Although everyone in town seems to want to best him in combat, Ip is a peaceable family man, and unusually for a martial arts film, he lives a comfortable, upper-crust life in a home stuffed full of expensive furniture and antiques. That various hot-blooded men keep turning up to challenge Ip is a constant source of irritation for his wife, who repeatedly scolds him for spending too much time fighting and not enough time playing with their young son.
In this opening chapter of the film, the tone is light, the characters effervescent, and the fight scenes playful. It serves as the perfect introduction to one of the most gentle, noble souls in kung-fu cinema, and what comes next is a dramatic shift in tone.
With the invasion of China by Japanese forces in 1937, the life of and his family changes forever. His once populous hometown is decimated, as its inhabitants are either killed or starve to death during the occupation. With his opulent house confiscated and food supplies dwindling, Ip sets off to work at a colliery – the first time he’s worked in his life, he later admits.
Donnie Yen lends his character a noble, refined edge that is quite unusual in Hong Kong cinema – he’s martial arts equivalent of James Mason. The introductory section of the film, where we get to see his peaceful, well-to-do life, make the latter stages, where he finally does lose his temper, seem all the more dramatic and powerful.
The fight sequences are, quite simply, remarkable. Ip Man isn’t as saturated with wall-to-wall combat as some HK movies, but the strength of Wilson Yip’s direction, and Sammo Hung’s reliably balletic martial arts choreography, means that, when the fights do break out, you’ll feel every kick and punch.
Unlike earlier, globally successful martial arts films, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House Of Flying Daggers or Hero, Ip Man doesn’t make use of computer graphics or wire work in these scenes; while still extremely stylised and extraordinarily outlandish, there’s a gritty, uncompromising edge to the fights here. When an enraged Ip, in one of the film’s most spectacular scenes, takes on ten bad guys at once, you feel every single broken rib and shattered femur.
With society crumbling under the oppression of the Japanese army, Ip ends up fighting a battle on two fronts. His best friend’s factory is threatened by gangsters, while a sadistic General Miura – an expert in a particularly hectic brand of Karate – repeatedly challenges Ip and his co-workers to fight in impromptu martial arts tournaments.
While based on true events – Ip Man went on to become the foremost practitioner of Wing Chun after the war, and taught hundreds of students, one of whom was Bruce Lee – some have criticised the film’s rather embroidered view of history. The real Ip Man wasn’t forced into servitude during the Japanese occupation, never worked in a colliery, and he never fought a Japanese general in mortal combat.
It’s also true that Ip Man paints the Japanese as unequivocally evil and two-dimensionally amoral, in a not dissimilar fashion to Bruce Lee’s classic, Fist Of Fury, which also purported to be based on true events.
But, if viewed as a purely cinematic piece of entertainment rather than historical document, Ip Man is surely one of the finest martial arts movies ever made. It takes the time to establish characters that are easy to care about, and manages to convey some quite savage images of wartime occupation, while occasionally injecting a much-needed shot of humour.
Ip Man, therefore, is a martial arts movie that almost anyone can appreciate – it’s beautifully shot, remarkably choreographed, but most importantly, perhaps, it’s got a genuinely engaging character at its centre. The result is a true classic of Hong Kong cinema.