If you're a lover of the martial arts and know the basics of Bruce Lee's history, you are no doubt aware of the aged grandmaster who taught him the style that formed the foundation for his legendary skills, namely Wing Chun kung fu. The figure in question was Yip Man (1893-1972) and by all accounts he was a highly proficient practitioner of his chosen art, so him being the fire that lit the fuse of Bruce Lee, who at the time was something of a delinquent asshole who respected few people, speaks volumes.
As much as I find Lee of considerable interest, I have always been much more interested in his teacher and his pursuit and promotion of Wing Chun, a form noted for its no-nonsense practicality and utterly devastating effect, something I can personally attest to after sparring with a few Wing Chun practitioners over the years and having my ass handed to me like a sack of sliders at the White Castle takeout counter. So with the undying popularity of Bruce Lee still very much in effect and the accompanying interest in the ancillary martial figures in his life, it was inevitable that someone would get around to making a bio-pic about his sifu. Fortunately, the resulting film, IP MAN (apparently the traditional Chinese spelling of his name rather than the Cantonese), is in every way better than the cloying, Hollywoodized date movie crap that was DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY (1993), although I do have my doubts as to the historical accuracy/truthfulness of this film since it adds up to a pretty much perfect HK-style inspirational heroic story. But who cares about veracity when you're being entertained so thoroughly?
The film opens in the Chinese town of Foshan in the pre-WWII 1930's, and we are immediately told that the place is known as "the town of martial arts" thanks to the high number schools teaching said skills. Among the many masters in the place is Ip Man (Donnie Yen), a kindly, quiet and thoughtful family man who is such a badass that people are constantly begging him to teach them his skills or let them test their own prowess against his. The first third of the flick shows us just what kind of a serious mistake it is to engage in a match with Master Ip, first as seen in the embarrassing private beatdown of a master who has an unduly over-inflated opinion of himself and his skill set (a defeat that Ip Man keeps mum about out of professional respect and consideration for his opponent's feelings and reputation), and Ip's complete and utter decimation of an arrogant would-be sifu who kicks the ass of every other master in town before showing up at Ip's house and rudely demanding to take him on. Both of these sequences are terrific and feature choreography by my man Sammo Hung — a real-life classmate of Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao who's a fatass whose nimbleness and overall kung fu talents will shock the living shit out of you just before you collapse to the dusty ground in a beaten and bloodied heap — and for the first time in years I found myself perched on the edge of my seat during a martial arts movie's fights.
After establishing both Ip's serene martial toughness and his sense of community-mindedness, things take a dour turn as the Sino-Japanese War gets underway and the people of Foshan feel the boot of Japanese occupation upon their collective neck. Ip's fortunes see a sad reversal as he, his wife and his son are turned out of their semi-palatial home and are forced to live as more or less peasants. As Ip's wife becomes ill due to the various deprivations of the situation, Ip takes a job digging coal — an immense step down for a cultured man such as himself, but he endures with a pleasant attitude and not one word of complaint — but soon takes up the challenge of the occupying Japanese general (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a stern bastard who enjoys seeing the karate skills of his troops tested against the downtrodden Chinese masters in exchange for a paltry bag of rice should the Chinese prove the victors. There's a bit of standard Hong Kong movie soap opera stuff throughout all of this, but not enough to detract from the ass-whuppin', and when an outraged Ip Man enters the general's improvised dojo and demands to fight ten men (as opposed to the usual one-on-one or three-on-one), it's a festival of foot-to-ass that will make fans of the genre feel glad to be alive.
After the Japanese suffer a crushing defeat at the hands (and feet) of one very serene Chinese, tensions escalate to the point where Ip must teach the locals Wing Chun so they can defend themselves against the Japanese and a pack of opportunistic bandits led by the would-be martial arts instructor Ip thoroughly humiliated earlier in the film. And as if all that mishegoss were not enough, the Japanese general demands a personal and public one-on-one match against Ip in which he hopes to prove the superiority of Japanese martial arts, and unless he gets his way the innocent locals will be made to suffer, and suffer and suffer...
You get the idea, and all I have to say is put this one on the ol' Netflix queue immediately. After the disappointing, uninvolving and highly-overrated CHOCOLATE, I welcome IP MAN like a fondly-remembered and long-lost friend. Let's hope the two upcoming sequels are even half as good as this.