It was a dark time for Hong Kong martial arts films. Thai
actioners were saturating the market and domestic stars like Jackie Chan and
Jet Li had long been written off as relics of a time when using wires for kung
fu was inconceivable. The year was 2008 and director Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen,
the charisma-deficient Old Stone Face of Wing Chun fighting, had collaborated
on Ip Man, the first of what is so
far a three-film series about jingoism, self-reliance and ritualized violence.
The film won a dozen awards, including the Golden Horse Award (the Chinese
equivalent of the Oscars) for best action choreography. While Ip Man carries on in the tradition of
contextless historical fight films—like the wildly popular Once Upon a Time in China movies—it remains an inexplicable,
contextless bit of kung fu historicosploitation—albeit a very satisfying one.
Because of popular demand, it now screens in New York uncut, undubbed and in its
full Hong Kong version at Cinema Village.
Yen stars as Brother Man, a wealthy, happily married man who
leads a simple, though hardly demure, life. He has an idyllic nuclear family
supporting him and is secure in the knowledge that he is the best martial
artist in all of Fuoshan, a city known for its dojos. He’s unperturbed by the
changing times and, as a friend accuses, is only concerned with eating,
sleeping and training.
Man is the role Yen was made to play: a stoic tough guy that
everybody in the community knows is the best and hence everybody turns to for
protection, like a Chinese mafioso. By contrast, the only local cop in Ip Man is a trigger-happy hysteric that
Man handily disarms, putting the power of policing the neighborhood back into
the hands of the most qualified local in the neighborhood: him. Might doesn’t
always make right in kung fu films but in this case, there’s no doubt that it
Ip Man is
bifurcated into two time periods: pre-WWII, when Man was free to strut his
stuff as Fuoshan’s defender, and wartime, when all the formerly independent
kung fu masters are forced to dig coal and fight against bloodthirsty Japanese
martial artists for an eighth full bag of rice. A local bandit like Jin Shan
Zhao (Siu-Wong Fan) is stopped from thriving in the first era but it takes the
war era, when fighters are shot when they best their oppressors, for Man to
realize that his neighbors’ cries to be trained by him can no longer be
The self-fashioned tradition of built-in chauvinism in Ip Man is extraordinary. It’s a
knowingly more conservative period drama than even the early Shaw brothers
films from the 1960s that inspired Chan, then Li and finally Yen’s generation.
Man’s wife, for example, seems only to exist to demurely support Man: She bawls
before the film’s finale that she never supported his kung fu habit enough.
That final conflict between evil General Sanpo and Man—who
of course still has to fight the biggest bad guy since the locals are too
incompetent to even fight a group of disorganized bandits—is also curiously
ruthless. Sanpo is likened to Man’s coat rack-like training apparatus, making
the flurry of blows Man rains down on Sanpo’s head a vicious attack on a
dehumanized piece of furniture. It’s a fittingly abstract and totally brutal
finale to the biggest thing in Hong Kong martial arts today.
Ip Man, directed by
Wilson Yip, at Cinema Village, Runtime: 107 min.