One of my aims when commencing my IMDB top 250 challenge was to broaden my horizons and experience different film genres which I wouldn’t normally chose to watch. One such example is the martial arts genre to which Ip Man belongs. I can honestly say that, apart from the Karate Kid movies, I have never watched a martial arts film, nor have I ever had the desire to watch one. Ip Man has, however, gone someway to destroying my bias against Kung-Fu as it is a highly entertaining film which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Ip Man is a loose biopic of Grandmaster Ip Man, founder of the Wing Chung branch of martial arts and mentor to Bruce Lee. The film is set in the 1930s and focuses on Ip Man’s early life in Foshan, China, where he is a wealthy man and part of upper class society. Upon the Japanese invasion in 1937, Ip Man, like most other inhabitants of Foshan, is driven from his home and forced to live a meagre existence under Japanese rule. The film documents Ip Man’s struggle to provide for his family and his quest to protect Chinese honour in the face of atrocities committed by the occupying Japanese forces.
The film is well paced and I, for one, was gripped throughout. Donnie Yen, in the role of Ip Man, gives a great performance and is a powerful presence on screen. The supporting cast are also very good, particularly the two Japanese antagonists who provide a real sense of danger to the people of Foshan. The film also features some spectacular production design which really brings to life the 1930s Chinese setting. The contrast in living conditions before and after the Japanese invasion is lovingly rendered on screen and adds to the authenticity of the film.
As this is at heart an action film, the fight scenes are particularly important and it is no surprise that they are beautifully choreographed and demonstrate some outstanding skill from the lead actors. The film manages to display enough violence to give the fight scenes authenticity but manages to avoid descending into a display of gratuitous violence at the expense of plot development.
At the heart of the film is an interesting theme of the modern vs the ancient. The skilful, hand to hand combat, which is at the heart of the martial arts demonstrated in the film is, in several scenes, contrasted to the more mechanical use of modern weaponry. This is an interesting juxtaposition which raises the question of whether the technological advancements which have created modern weapons, has resulted in a loss of honour in our humanity.
Sure, the film is not without its flaws. The dialogue is clunky places (although I suspect that has something to do with the English translation) and there are some glaring plot holes which you could drive a Japanese tank through. In one scene, Ip Man teaches the entire workforce of a local factory how to defend themselves from local bandits and, whilst entertaining, it is a stretch of imagination too far.
The story also lacks the ring of truth, and after some brief research into the real Ip Man, it becomes clear that this is a highly fictionalised account of the man, with the focus very much on the creation of a good story rather than historical accuracy. The film is also a heavily biased representation of the Sino-Japanese war, presenting the Chinese as honourable people and the Japanese as a savage race, reliant on their weaponry.
These are, however, relatively minor complaints in a film which is hugely entertaining and a fine example to Hollywood of how to make a traditional blockbuster which is reliant on acting, direction and choreography instead of special effects. It may not be fine art but, as Saturday night entertainment, this is an excellent film.