We will start this entry by having a little laugh at my expense. When I first came across this film I assumed that the IP was an acronym for something (and not Internet Protocol or Internet Provider). A little secret googling and of course it became clear that it was actually someone’s name. This of course is the first entry in a series of films about the life of Ip (or Yip) Man, probably most famous for being the first open teacher of Wing Chun, and eventually training a somewhat famous chap called Bruce Lee.
However, this biopic starts much earlier than this. “Ip Man” starts in the Chinese town of Foshan, which appears to be an epicentre for martial arts schools. Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is a well known practitioner of martial arts, but is not actually a teacher, preferring to spend his days with his wife and young child. Of course, he is constantly being asked to spar with people, which he takes in a good natured way, even if his wife disapproves. He is certainly very well off, and seems to be a man of leisure. The whole first third of the movie works in this setting, with a few fights thrown in, but you get a real sense of community and meeting various characters. If the film was all like this, then to be honest it would be entertaining, but so-so.
You may notice dear reader, that I have approached this a little oddly. I have only spoken about the bright, fun, but overall ok first third of the movie. That is because the film takes a sudden tonal shift, and although jarring, elevates the movie.
With little fanfare, the film suddenly move forward a few months, and we are into the Japanese occupation during the second Sino-Japanese war. I mean no fanfare. Just a cut scene, a few lines of text and the world has changed. The colour pallette has been drained of brightness, everything seems dirty, people are unhappy. Yip Man and his family are suddenly forced into a life of poverty, forced to pawn possessions for a bad of rice, and he has to go out and work (something he has never had to do before).
The story eventually advances to one about Chinese Martial Arts versus Japanese Martial arts, with the commander of the local Japanese occupiers being a huge fan and arranging competitions. We get a succession of battles, and the seeds are lain for the fightback against occupation, and well as Yip Man’s own escape to Hong King.
Donnie Yen is very entertaining, not just in the fight sequences, but he seems to have worked hard in developing the character, a calm, focussed but always smiling man. Devoted to his wife and children, yet always willing to help his friends and entertain those around him. Now I have not seen an awful lot of Donnie Yen films (really not much more than a couple of cameos) yet, but the prevailing wisdom is that he probably is not the worlds finest actor. Well whatever he may have been like in the past, he totally sold me in this portrayal, front and foremost showing the trait of dignity. Inspiring.
There is some lovely work with one of Yip Man’s friends, a former Police Officer, who seems to have become a traitor, acting as an interpreter for the Japanese. But the part is actually cleverer than that, this is a man doing what he has to do, with deeper motivations than might be obvious to those around him. As the film progresses you suddenly see that this is a man who will sacrifice all for his friends and his people, even if his outward appearance is that of a weak man.
Now I have to be honest here. Probably none of the detail of this section actually happened. I can’t find much evidence that the nitty gritty detail of the film occurred at all. The bare bones certainly did, and that is documented fact. But whether the Japanese Occupation in Foshan really came down to a “Fight Club for Rice” – well I think that is rather unlikely. This is a war film in the classic mold. It is not about accuracy, it is more about National Pride, and maybe to me as a Westerner it seems a little simplistic, or even jingoistic, but I think you look at any Western film set in World War 2, you will be able to lay similar accusations at the door.
But it is a film, made for entertainment not education, and a quite remarkable one at that. It should satisfy the martial arts crowd as well as those more interested in drama. You do get a feel for what a special person Yip Man was. With the sequel on my to-watch list, and another in the works, I think this could be a franchise of some weight.