Movie Review: Ip Man (2008)
Donnie Yen as Ip Man, the real-life Wing Chun martial artist who would eventually teach Bruce Lee, embodies the stillness of the master. He is quiet and modest, his movements minimal. At one point, I was reminded of the beginning of the final battle in “Drunken Master 2,” when an angry musclebound man wielding a chain battles Jackie Chan ... who is carrying only a Chinese hand fan. Here, in Ip Man’s second battle, he takes on a bullying northern master who is wielding an axe. Ip Man’s weapon? A feather duster.
The movie is in two parts: before and during the Japanese occupation of the 1930s/40s. We get four main Ip Man battles:
- vs. Master Liu (Chen Zhi-hui), who wants to test his prowess
- vs. Jin (Fan Sui-wong), the bristling northerner intent on embarassing the town of Foshan and all southern kung fu
- vs. 10 Japanese martial artists for 10 bags of rice, which Ip Man refuses
- vs. Gen. Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), the movie’s main villain, an honorable autocrat intent on proving Japanese karate better than Chinese kung fu
Production values are high. Characters are stock but not outré. The movie is similar to its main character in that it has little wasted space.
Much of the movie is seeing who will become what under Japanese occupation. The cocky police inspector (Lam Ka Tung) becomes a translator ... and a traitor? No. He has honor. He does what he can to protect Chinese citizens. Ditto the Chinese businessman (Simon Yam). The main disappointment is the northerner, who winds up a thief in the woods robbing the Chinese, who have nothing. Fan Sui-wong has presence, but his character is an idiot; he’s Dennis Moore. Apparently he shows up in the sequels.
Ip Man, meanwhile, loses his estate to the Japanese and winds up shoveling coal. When the northerner begins to bully the factory workers, he relents and teaches them Wing Chun. Why has he resisted educating for so long? Not sure. Because he was wealthy? Because his wife (Lynn Hung) didn’t want him to?
That could’ve improved upon. The wife thing. There’s no more thankless task than to play the wife who tries to keep her husband from the plot. We’re here to see him do X (fight Apollo Creed, investigate the JFK assassination), she doesn’t want him to do X, so we wait. That's the wife here—particularly in the first half. She doesn’t want him to fight anyone, even for the honor of the town. In the second half, with Japanese everywhere, she’s more like Adrian waking from her coma: Win.
There’s not much more to it than that. “Ip Man,” directed by Wilson Yip, with fight choreography from Sammo Hong, reminds me a bit of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” It doesn’t try to add to the classic kung fu movie; it reduces it to its essence. It tries to perfect what’s there.