Ip Man (2008)
Yes, I have only just watched it. I'd somehow missed out on it two years ago, and seeing as its sequel is now that other highly-anticipated blockbuster movie that starts with "I" and ends with "Man 2", it's high time I gave it a watch and a review. Honestly, I am a stickler for always starting a series from the beginning, and twice before I have gone back and caught up on previous installments before reviewing the latest. (Although I don't always.) So yes, I have finally watched The Film Everybody Mispronounces As Eye Pee Man, in preparation for The Film Everybody Mispronounces As Eye Pee Man Too.
I liked it, but I liked the movie it could've been a lot more.
It is the 1930s, and the city of Foshan is renowned for its many kungfu schools. The greatest among them is the Wing Chun master Ip Man (Donnie Yen), renowned for his gentlemanly conduct as well as his superlative skills; it is he who is called upon to defend Foshan's honour when the northerner Jin (Fan Siu-wong) challenges and beats up every other kungfu master. But in 1937, the Sino-Japanese War breaks out, and Foshan becomes Japanese-occupied territory; Ip, and his wife Cheng (Xiong Dai-lin) and son Chun (Li Chak), suffer under their yoke along with every other Chinese. When General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) sends translator/collaborator Li (Lam Ka-tung) to invite Chinese martial artists to matches against Japanese, Ip reluctantly takes part - and this brings him the unwanted attention of the Japanese authorities. Further complicating matters is Ip's friend Quan (Simon Yam), who runs a cotton mill, asking Ip to teach kungfu to his mill workers, which makes it even harder for him to lay low.
Once again, LoveHKFilm's review nails it - it's a good kungfu action flick, but it ain't that hot as a biopic. A good biopic offers insights into its subject, turning a dry historical figure into a three-dimensional character who did the things he did for reasons we can understand. The Ip Man of Ip Man is practically a Mary Sue; Foshan may have many kungfu masters, but Ip is universally revered as the best among them, even though he doesn't even have his own school. (You know why? Because according to Wing Chun tradition, a master takes only one student at a time. So when Ip breaks that tradition by training Quan's millworkers, it should be significant, dammit!) His duel with Jin is a humiliating smackdown in which he schools the northerner with a feather duster. And he's also the perfect Chinese gentleman, modest and humble to a fault - which is really just another flavour of Mary Sue-ism.
And then the Japanese invade Foshan - and suddenly, watching Ip struggle to maintain his dignity amidst abject poverty becomes compelling viewing. Here's something new to the typical Chinese-honour-vs.-Insert-Evil-Foreign-Nationality-Here movie - a depiction of what it's like to live, utterly defeated, under the Japanese occupation. Racial and cultural pride is no defence against an overwhelmingly superior enemy, nor does it feed your family when food is painfully scarce. Particularly interesting is its portrayal of Li the collaborator, who in another film - Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury comes to mind - would've been an egregiously evil traitor to his race, but here turns out to be a surprisingly decent fellow.
In one scene, Ip as much as admits that all his Wing Chun skills are useless at a time like this - which I thought was pretty daring for a movie of this kind. But here's the thing: he says this right after an epic fight scene in which he delivers the whoopass onto ten gi-clad Japanese dudes. What's interesting about this scene is that the moves he uses here are the same ones we saw in the friendly, gentlemanly sparring sessions Ip had with his fellow masters before the war - back when Foshan was a community of mutually respectful martial artists, who could fight duels and still remain cordial with one another - and you can bet this was a deliberate callback. Now, what are we to make of this? Is Ip at heart a gentle man, forced by circumstances to turn his graceful art into savagery and brutality? Is this scene of a Chinese kungfu master beating up Japanese a tragedy?
I wish it were. It would've been daring and original, not to mention it would've made the film a genuine biopic. Sadly, the rest of it goes back to pandering to the usual Chinese insecurity against foreign devils and their never-ending crusade to humiliate the Chinese race. General Miura seems to almost be an honourable adversary, in the vein of Tanaka from Jet Li's Fearless, but he's just kinda neither here nor there - and there's also a Colonel Sato (Shibuya Tenma) who's just over-the-top despicable, just in case we start mistaking this movie for having a balanced viewpoint. And speaking of Jet Li movies, Fist of Legend did a much better job at it, even if its final boss Japanese general was unrepentantly evil. But that just proves you don't have to sacrifice kungfu action for a mature story.
But the neat thing about it is that Donnie Yen plays Ip as if he were a gentle man horrified by his own violence, even as director Wilson Yip turns on the hero-worship and the Chinese racial jingoism. Yen has never been the most subtle actor, and in truth he's a little rough around the edges here, but he deserves kudos for finding the right interpretation of the character and sticking to it. Ip may be a Mary Sue, but Yen never plays him as a Mary Sue, and this alone may make this his most accomplished role yet. The rest of the acting is decent, but marred by some terrible dubbing; the pan-Chinese (i.e. inclusive of China and Taiwan) nature of Hong Kong filmmaking nowadays means Mandarin-speaking actors are almost always dubbed into Cantonese, which distracts from Xiong Dai-Lin's and Xing Yu's (who plays a kungfu enthusiast and friend of Ip's) performances. At least the Japanese speak Japanese.
I fear I'm getting too nitpicky for my own good; I'm nearing the end of this review and I've barely even mentioned the fight scenes. Suffice to say that they are terrifically kickass. Even if Ip barely breaks sweat in any of them, they're still pretty damn thrilling; Wing Chun, the style that specialises in lightning-fast blocks and punches, is just that cool to watch. It's a film that does a few fresh and interesting things with the period kungfu genre, but never really goes far enough with them, and falls back onto a very tired and borderline xenophobic cliche. Most of what I've said is about what I wanted it to be; I especially wanted it to be a depiction of martial arts as an art, a pursuit of perfection for perfection's sake, instead of a means to beat people up. But Ip Man is what it is: a kungfu action flick in which a righteous Chinese hero kicks evil Japanese ass. And it works fine for what it is. It's just that I think it's about time we had enough of it.