As a rule, I don’t really enjoy Chinese historical dramas and I think the Once Upon a Time in China series is deadly boring. However, this film has been generating quite a buzz on the Internet, and while I don’t really pay much attention to film ratings, I did notice that this movie was highly rated on virtually every site I went to, so I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did.
Based very loosely on an actual person, Ip Man tells the story of Yip Kai-man (also variously spelled as "Ip" instead of "Yip," hence the title of the film) during the 30’s and 40’s, particularly during the Japanese invasion and occupation of China during WWII. Ip Man is something of a folk hero to the Chinese as the man who popularized the Chinese martial art of Wing Chun and who also taught Bruce Lee.
The story centers around the independently wealthy Ip Man who is a legendary martial artist in the town of Foshan. But instead of opening a martial arts school, he leads a quiet and peaceful life. In 1937, the Japanese invade China and Ip man and his family are summarily kicked out of their house to live a life of abject poverty so the Japanese officers can live there. Ip man continues to live a peaceful existence, scraping by with odd jobs until he finds steady work in a coal mine. Meanwhile, the Japanese soldiers entertain themselves by staging martial arts fights between themselves and the poor Chinese workers, promising them a bag of rice when they win a fight. Ip Man’s life changes when he witnesses the unjust death of one of his friends during a match. He finally becomes angered at all the injustices he has witnessed and experienced personally and demands to fight 10 Japanese soldiers, all of which he summarily beats. After the match, he disappears while the Japanese general searches for him so he can personally beat Ip Man in front of the Chinese people, proving once and for all that the Japanese are superior to the Chinese. Of course, this final match does eventually occur, with Ip Man giving the evil Japanese general a tremendous beatdown and securing his name in Chinese lore forever.
I really liked this film. I think I liked it for all the things it didn’t have. These types of Chinese films typically have spotty acting and tremendously misplaced slapstick humor. I’m not criticizing Hong Kong because this is what the Hong Kong audience enjoys and expects; it’s just not necessarily my cup of tea. But Ip Man has superior acting across the board, including Donnie Yen as the iconic character of Ip Man himself and Simon Yam (recognizable to American audiences from Lara Croft’s Tomb Raider). And while there is some humor, it is subtle and used early in the film before the more dramatic second half begins. The humor is never overt or misplaced as it typically is in so many Hong Kong films. In fact, the second half of the film is quite bleak and depressing, as you would imagine occupied China–or anywhere that is occupied–would probably be.
The fight scenes are exciting and very well-done; no surprise as Sammo Hung was the action director for the film. And while many Hong Kong films have a skimpy plot typically used to move from one fight scene to the next, Ip Man flows smoothly and never seems to be catering to the fight scenes themselves.
My one quibble with the film is its obvious anti-Japanese slant. But if one has any knowledge at all of the Sino-Japanese War, then this little flaw can be forgiven. The Japanese treated the Chinese much like the Nazis treated the Jews. The Chinese were viewed as inhuman–in fact, the Japanese referred to them as "maruta," or logs, so they weren’t even considered as living, breathing beings, just material to be used for different–and often horrible–purposes. Even so many decades later, the Japanese as a culture refuse to recognize their crimes against the Chinese during WWII and there is a great deal of animosity between the two nations and cultures, so I can forgive a little anti-Japanese/pro-Chinese message in the film. But what I can’t forgive is the fact that the Japanese-as-evildoer is played up so much it detracts from the film a little bit by limiting the Japanese characters to mere caricatures. This lessened the impact of both the Japanese atrocities committed in the film as well as the scenes of the Chinese overcoming their enemies. But other than this minor flaw, the film is very good and highly entertaining–just don’t take it all for fact, as it is very loosely based on the life of Ip Man.
You can pick this up on a region one DVD or on Netflix streaming. It is a fun, well-made film and very enjoyable. Recommended.