Now Presenting: A Review of Ip Man

The martial arts genre is one that has always alluded me as a fan of cinema. In a lot of ways, that is the reason I write for Mashers Club, because I want to document my education and exploration of film. Directed by Wilson Yip, Ip Man is a biographical film based on the life of its titular protagonist. For those unaware (like myself prior to this film), Ip Man was a grandmaster of the martial art Wing Chun and went onto teach Bruce Lee the craft. This 2008 Hong Kong film bases itself on events that supposedly happened in the city of Foshan during the Sino-Japanese War.

Something I was curious about heading into this film was how much of it would be historical fact and how much of it would be revisionist history and / or dramatized for cinema. The answer to that question is – a lot of it. This isn’t something I cared about by any stretch, mind you. In-fact, I can’t imagine heading into this film and not expecting it be necessary to take everything with a grain of salt. Truthfully, most of this film is a complete fabrication.

The film sees Donnie Yen as our protagonist (with martial arts choreography by Sammo Hung, and has a supporting cast comprised of Simon Yam, Lynn Hung, Lam Ka-tung, Xing Yu, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi and Tenma Shibuya. The film was a co-production between China and Hong Kong (surprisingly Japan didn’t want in on the action) and was one of the last films to be distributed by Mandarin Films. Ip Man was a modest box office success (making about 22 million from a 12 million production budget), but its legacy and followups prove the level of mileage it had thereafter.

Donnie Yen portrays Ip Man in a subdued, reserved fashion. This goes to create the illusion of a character with silent intensity and charisma with heavy concentration in combat. Otherwise, his character feels humble and like a man of a sound belief system. It is a character portrayal that might feel archetypal had Donnie Yen’s execution not felt so natural and effortless.

Filmed in Shanghai, the setting recreates Foshan during the late 1930s and World War II. The backdrop and story no doubt have varying levels of seriousness to them, but I found the film often kept itself from swallowing its own tail, so to speak. World War II and the Sino-Japanese War are heavy, sensitive subject-matter, and yet a film like this needs to find a happy-medium. You don’t want to underplay the severity of the situation or the hardships that ensued, but if you overdo it then you’ll be met with a certain tonal dissonance when it comes time for over-the-top, bone-shattering action. I think the film succeeds at walking that tightrope.

The film has clear conflicts and antagonists, existing on a lower, more intimate scale than the greater events happening around them. Ip Man isn’t fighting armies or saving the country during World War 2, but he is fighting for his country and his home. Japan, ultimately, serves as the antagonist in this film, with Karate masters serving as his opponents (which is low-key hilarious). Ip Man carries an anti-Japanese sentiment throughout, as well as a nationalist ideology. Say what you will, but I think this can be justified from the perspective of its characters – they were at war, after all.

For the most part, our antagonists are dummies for Ip Man to kick around. They do bad things and thus, he hurts them. It is not a very complex dynamic nor does it really need to be.

The action is fun and graceful, offering bone-shattering mayhem with the occasional glimpses of humor sprinkled in. The story-line itself is very safe and conventional, with unlikely happenstances and cliches that can very clearly be spotted. However, complimented by the performances and the production value (benefited by a classical sound), and the emotional weight shown by the real horrors of Japanese occupation, it is able to perform a sleight of hand and build a real level of suspense and tension.

I liked Ip Man. The film didn’t exactly blow my mind with its story or the action involved (though it is no doubt impressive), but it had a competent narrative and satiable action, complimented by a solid production and strong performance by Donnie Yen. I would recommend it.

Placement on the List: – The (Upper Tier) Decents

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