Friday, July 15, 2011

Ip Man

Directed by Wilson Yip.
2008. Rated R, 106 minutes.
Donnie Yen
Simon Yam
Siu-Wong Fan
Ka Tung Lam
Yu Xing
You-Nam Wong
Chen Zhi Hui

The Chinese city of Fo-Shan is famous for its martial arts. No one in town is more famous than Master Ip (Yen) AKA Ip Man. Though he doesn’t teach formally, young hopefuls are constantly seeking his counsel. When other masters want to test their mettle, they challenge him to a duel. It’s only natural that when some tough guys from out of town want to prove themselves worthy of opening up their own school in Fo-Shan they wind up on the doorstep of Ip’s palatial estate. All of this is in the days just before the Japanese invading China and pretty much taking over Fo-Shan. They even set up shop in Ip’s house, leaving the master, his wife and young son to find shelter in parts of town destroyed by bombings. Ip is forced to take hard labor jobs to get just barely enough food for his family avoid starving to death. What good is all his knowledge and skill in the art of hand-to-hand combat in a world where he and his fellow countrymen have been relegated to second class citizenship in their own land?

Ip Man is loosely based on the life of Bruce Lee’s mentor. It combines the larger themes of survival, cultural preservation and national pride and combines them with the more traditional kung-fu motifs of revenge and honor to create a rather concise epic that neither overstays its welcome nor rushes us along from fight to fight. It works both narratively and viscerally. It’s story-telling isn’t groundbreaking, but it is effective. The fighting is wonderfully brutal. Even as our tale develops and twists, the next action scene is never too far away nor too near. Let’s face it, we watch martial arts movies for the martial arts. This film understands this, gives us plenty of it but doesn’t sacrifice narration.

To make those fight scenes work, we need a star who can pull them off. In the title role, Donnie Yen is a delightful blur of flying fists punctuated by his long gown-like shirt flapping in his self-created wind. Appropriately placed close-ups reveal the landing of many bone-crushing blows. I was moved to say “ouch” on a number of occasions. For fans of martial arts flicks Ip Man is a must-see. It is the best such movie of the last several years by a good margin. Of course, if you’re not into martial arts flicks then skip it. Shame on you.

MY SCORE: 8/10

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