4 out of 5
Directed by: Wilson Yip
Landing halfway between Donnie Yen martial arts vehicle and historical biopic, Ip Man is, as with most Yen flicks, jaw-droppingly watchable when its fists are a’flyin’. Director Yip, screenwriter Raymond Wong, and cinematographer O Sing-Pui also offer a respectably paced and written drama, with a grand but grounded production quality / aesthetic that keeps those moments inbetween endearing, if not interesting. “If not” only because the film struggles from that biopic sense of lingering; that there’s no definite beginning or end, and no black and white heroes and villains in real life (unless you dramaticize them so). Ip Man thus sort of wanders about to form up a build to a ‘climactic’ moment – Yip’s fight against a local Japanese general – which the flicks uses as a pivotal inspirational moment for the Chinese during the Sino-Japanese war. Wong and Yip actually back themselves into a corner a bit by making the general, Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), have human traits, and thus stuff some audience-soothing elements into the story via Miura’s shoot-happy lieutenant, Sato, and Kam Shan-chu (Fan Siu-wong), a stubborn martial artist who challenges Ip Man at various points in the flick and allows for some comedy to be sprinkled atop the history.
Structurally, the movie is split around the Japanese takeover of Ip’s home of Foshan; we spend half the time learning of Ip’s benevolence and mastery of the martial arts of Wing Chun, which gives relevance to his resistance to violence and inevitable push past that resistance. It’s pretty simplified in pursuing that tactic, but again, that’s part of the task of biographical flicks – summarize the history into something relatively bite-sized – and Ip Man does it rather majestically, and without some of the gregarious majesticness that would often happen in a similar Americanized version of this tale.
So it functions as a martial arts flick, for sure, but also has some story in there that you can justify as being educational. Maybe it feels a little short with its treatment of Ip’s wife (played by Lynn Hung) as a doter, but to be fair, everyone gets a pretty one-attribute variation of their real-life counterparts, and to be historically unfair, we tend to reduce wives to that role. Bleep bloop reductivist sexism? Yell at me about this later.