So two of the highlights of the last few year or so were the Ip Man bio-pic and its highly enjoyable, but a little less satisfying sequel. When I saw that we had a non-related prequel on the books I have to be honest my initial thought was “cash in”. But then I looked a little closer and noticed one of my favourite directors (Herman Yau) was attached, along with some of the cast from the previous film (albeit in somewhat different roles). Plus you get one of Ip Man’s sons in a small (but fun) acting role (he was a consultant on Wilson Yip‘s movies). Along with positive reviews from people I respect, and it all adds up to something I thought would be worth a look.
“The Legend Is Born: Ip Man” takes as its starting point one of my biggest issues of the first film. Just who is Ip Man, and how did he get to where he was at the beginning of the first film?
Now, I am going to break with tradition and deal with the negative first. Dennis To has obviously been cast as he bears more than a passing resemblance to Donnie Yen (and apparently Ip Man in his youth). The fact he is a world class fighter obviously helps. And yes, he is not the world greatest actor – but you know what? That is exactly the same criticism that has been thrown at Yen himself during his career. Yes, it is true he is not a fantastic actor, but to my eyes it felt totally in keeping with the later (earlier) Yen portrayal, and was not a distraction. Was I also confused by Sammo Hung appearing (somewhat briefly) as a completely different character? No not really.
Moreover, was I concerned with the inaccuracies between this film and the other two (the most obvious being that Ip Man can speak and understand English, which was actually a plot point in Ip Man 2)? No. Was I bothered that a good deal of this movie is fiction? No. And I will explain why. Ip Man really existed. That’s fact. Lots of what he has done is documented, but what is happening here is far more interesting than that. What we are seeing is film building up a mythology of a folk hero. Are any versions of the Robin Hood, William Tell or Goemon story 100% accurate? Hell no. The blithe answer is that this is just entertainment, but I am inclined to see more than that going on. The Ip Man story is interesting enough, but we are getting some social history here (albeit maybe a little jingoistic) – over the three films we are seeing a different viewpoint to elements of Japanese-Chinese and British-Chinese relations in the early 20th century. Of course things are somewhat twisted, but you accept this, and try and work out the WHY.
So, why did I love this film so much? Firstly, it is gorgeous. Far from looking like a cheap cash in, it has a wonderful overall design, and some stunning use of colour. There is a small scene designed to show the passing of some 10 years that does it cleverly using the fade and return of colour. It helps that Yau is an accomplished Director, well used to making silk purses out of sows ears.
I have read a few reviews that were complaining about the love story element. Yet for me, that is the most important bit. In the Yen films, there was obviously a loving relationship there, but I never got to understanding what it was that bought them together, and more importantly KEPT them together. You get some answers here – a sense of an attraction across the social divide, and that the wife is far more than a pretty face. At one point she buys a gramophone recording that Ip has inadvertently scratch. Why did she buy that a friend asks – I am buying a memory she replies. I’ve done that.
It’s this very emotional core that for me was lacking in the other films, emotion born out of more than life in wartime, or live in poverty. You also get a friendship, and a love triangle. Now whilst this is all fiction, it again helps the story to work on more levels.
And for you more action orientated viewers? I think there is enough in here for you.
So at the end of the day, of course this gets Highly Recommended. Do I prefer it to the other films? I am not so sure, especially the first. It has faults (as all films do), but I suspect on the day I want to re-watch a film about Ip Man, this will be the one I decide to pull out of the shelf first. Things Fall Apart’s best friend has it best summed up – It is in the Once Upon A Time In China mould, if you like those films, then this will touch you too.