Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
In case you hadn’t heard, I was forced to turn in my martial arts critic credentials after posting my review of Ong Bak 2 back in March. It seems I was too enthusiastic, hyperbolic, and just plain Billingtonesque with my love for the movie. In my defense, the review was written immediately following a mildly intoxicated midnight screening and I was trying to keep in line with the over-the-top nature of the film… Since then I’ve seen a version of the film trimmed of almost thirty fatty minutes making Ong Bak 2 a leaner, meaner, and even better martial arts movie than before. Even so, were I writing the review today I would rate it a B+ instead of the A. I still say it’s a martial arts epic of fantastic proportions though… So, minor mea culpa out of the way, this week we turn our attention to the greatest martial arts movie ever made!
Kidding. But Ip Man is very good. Donnie Yen stars as the real-life title character and Wing Chun instructor forced to flee China during the 2nd Sino-Japanese War. Before the Japanese invasion Ip Man is a popular practitioner of Wing Chun martial arts, a style reportedly created by a woman and known more for its close quarters, defensive, and deflective moves than for the showy, acrobatic assaults martial arts fans have grown accustomed to. But if you think that means the fights in Ip Man will lean toward the boring side you’re sorely mistaken. Fight scenes are scattered liberally throughout the movie, and while they vary in length they’re all consistently impressive in quality. Ip Man engages in combat mostly for training exercises and fun exhibitions, but when the Japanese invade his town the entire mood changes.
Until the invasion the film is presented in a sunlit, bright, and colorful palette, but afterward the entire thing takes on a muted gray. Friends and fellow citizens are killed or relocated to the tune of 2/3rds of the population, Ip Man along with everyone else is forced into squalor, and soon the Japanese general is arranging stadium-like fights for his own amusement. When the general hears of Ip Man’s considerable reputation he insists the pacifist join his competition. The general it seems is a master practitioner of Japanese karate and wants to see Ip Man’s specific Chinese style in action. He resists the challenge until the inevitable plot machinations force his hand resulting in an amazing fight between him and ten Japanese soldiers. Any other movie would drag that set piece out for maximum attention and exposure, but Ip Man only takes as long as he needs… in this case about two minutes of brutal speed-pummeling to finish off the enemy fighters. An awesome fight, but a brief one, which is why it’s lucky not to be the film’s finale. That honor is reserved for a one-on-one battle between Ip Man and the general himself.
Ip Man succeeds on various levels due mostly to the quality of the fights and the pure charisma of Yen. Sammo Hung choreographed the action and deserves credit, but Yen makes the action intense with his incredible speed, confidence, and abilities. Yen has always been an incredible fighter but he’s also been an incredibly boring actor. I’m not sure if it’s the role or if his thespian abilities have only now started catching up to his physical prowess, but he excels as Ip Man. Intense and focused when necessary, loose and casual the rest of the time, Yen is a fantastic lead… which is good since the sequel is already in production and there’s talk of a third movie too.
The movie isn’t perfect of course, as aside from the limited drama inherent in the historical event itself the movie never suggests the presence of any real risk or consequence. Ip Man’s fights are a visual treat but he’s never in danger of losing. Even the final fight only teases Ip Man at risk briefly. Obviously he’s going to win, but it would be nice to see him actually face a sincere challenge. That’s a nit-pick and a common element in fight films, and the positives far outweigh it. In addition to the action the film’s first half also manages a healthy sense of family love and humor. One of the best scenes finds Ip Man honoring a challenge inside his home with his defensive Wing Chun moves sending his opponent repeatedly crashing into tables and other furniture. His son comes riding into the room on his tricycle and says “Mother says if you don’t attack soon everything in the house will be broken.” It’s a funny and sweet scene and manages a joke at Wing Chun’s expense without being insulting.
Ip Man is biographical but never feels dry or purely historical. Much of the film is accurate in it’s depiction of the legendary man’s life, but it’s probably safe to assume the real Ip Man didn’t fight with wires… The sequel reportedly follows Ip Man’s attempts to teach Wing Chun Kung Fu openly and the efforts made by others to shut him down. They failed of course, and Ip Man went on to teach his most famous pupil… Bruce Lee. Can you imagine martial arts cinema without Bruce Lee? Egads! We never would seen Rob Cohen’s one good film, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story! Dodged a bullet there…