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The first biopic of the first public teacher of the Chinese martial art wing chun. Wilson Yip (Dragon Tiger Gate) directs, and Donnie Yen (Hero, Seven Swords) star.
Given his status as a master practitioner and populariser of the Chinese kung fu style known as wing chun, and as a great teacher whose students included cinema's most famous martial artist Bruce Lee, it is remarkable that Ip Kai-Man (who died in 1972) was spared cinematic study for so long, although perhaps the man's famous modesty made him unsuitable material for movie heroism.
In perhaps the most memorable scene of Wilson Yip's two-part biopic, Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is interrupted in his increasingly violent 'friendly' duel with trouble-making northern master Jin (Fan Siu-Wong) by the surreal appearance of his young son Zhun (Li Ze) on a tricycle, who declares: "Dad, Mum said if you don't stop fighting, everything in the house will be broken." Sure enough, the film focuses on Man's early career in his native Foshan, where his fighting prowess and natural teaching talents are constantly kept in check by domestic considerations, and more particularly by the jealous disapproval of his wife Cheung Wing-sing (Lynn Hung) - until, that is, the Japanese invade China and Man's fighting skills become a vehicle for national pride and unity against a group of 'out-of-towners' far more threatening than Jin will ever be.
The presence of young Zhun in this and many other scenes suggests an eyewitness veracity to the events as portrayed on-screen - after all, Zhun himself, now a much older man and a wing chun master in his own right, served as a consultant on Ip Man. The film, however, does not hesitate to sacrifice the truth to the demands of dramatic entertainment. The real Ip Man was never, despite the film's assertions to the contrary, forced from bourgeois idleness into work by the hardships of the Second Sino-Japanese War, nor was he ever employed as a coolie in a colliery - rather he chose of his own accord to work as a policeman (a profession lightly ridiculed within the film) before the Japanese invasion, and he continued in this line for several years after the war until Communist disapproval of his wealth and political affiliations drove him into voluntary exile in Hong Kong (an inconvenient truth that the film elides as tactfully as Ip Man mitigates the impact of his own victories). While, during the war, Ip Man did indeed refuse to teach his martial arts to the military police of the occupying Japanese - a decision which eventually forced him to flee Foshan - he certainly never had, let alone won, a duel with a Japanese general (played in the film by Hiroyuki Ikeuchi).
In other words, Ip Man occupies that strange no-man's-land between history's facts and cinema's fictions, and while the film ends before its protagonist's migration in 1939 to Hong Kong and his meeting, many years later, with Bruce Lee, nonetheless many of its incidents seem to have been inspired less by Ip Man's actual life as by set-pieces from the movies of his most famous student. The cotton mill fight, for example, is modelled on the factory mêlées in The Big Boss (1971) - the first kung fu movie that Wilson Yip ever saw - while the anti-Japanese sentiment and wushu-on-karate action could have come straight out of Fist Of Fury (1972).
As a showcase for the distinctive moves of Wing Chun, or more generally for some formalised (if largely wire-free) chopsocky, Ip Man is exemplary, thanks to the action choreography of cult Hong Kong star Sammo Hung. Rarely, too, is fighting of this quality matched by such strong dramatic performances, especially from the earnestly calm Yen. The problem, though, is with the story. In transforming a humble real-life martial artist into the type of the reluctant hero (and nationalist icon), screenwriter Edmond Wong has turned his subject not only into something that he was not, but also into an overfamiliar kung fu movie cliche. This is an impression not helped by the film's desaturated period look (yet another cliche), and a drift in the second, war-set half towards melodrama (complete with the soaring strings of Kenji Kawai's soundtrack).
Ip Man shoe-horns its protagonist into the role of a hard-hitting Jesus figure who must shoulder the burden of his nation's pride in the face of outside threats. The real Ip Man deserves a more original touch, so here's hoping that Wong Kar-Wai will bring it.
Ip Man is a highly competent, even slick biopic, but by reshaping its protagonist's life story towards cinematic convention, it ends up being just another martial arts movie.
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On Channel 4: 20 April 2014