Ip Man

Year: 2008
Production Co: Beijing ShengShi HuaRei Film Investment & Management Co
Director: Wilson Yip
Writer: Edmond Wong/Tai-lee Chan
Cast: Donnie Yen

I've been aware of this martial arts classic for years but never had a burning urge to watch it. It was actually because my wife loves kung fu movies that I thought I'd call it up in my streaming queue, but I'm glad we did.

It's not 70s Hong Kong exploitation chop socky in style (even though I was aware it was made much more recently), but the fight scenes are staged with a sense of kinetic excitement that's as satisfying as star Donnie Yen's moves with his various opponents.

I also think I was aware Ip Man was a real person, but I had no idea any of the elements in this movie were from his actual life. In the mid 1930s when China is exposed to but not overrun with modern ideals, kindly wing chun master Ip (Yen) lives a quiet life with his wife and young son in his home town of Foshan.

The city is famous for its concentration of martial arts schools, and when a newly minted school master asks Ip Man if he can duel him in his home, it's as genteel a gathering as you'd care to see between two guys about to beat the shit out of each other.

Ip Man pulls punches for the sake of social grace instead of breaking the guy's face and is happy to leave it at that. But a local boy retrieving his kite from a nearby tree has seen the fight through the windows of Ip Man's house and word gets around that the local kung fu teacher lost to the legendary fighter.

But with local social unrest brewing, bigger problems appear on the horizon in the form of the Japanese invasion that precipitates World War II. Ip's house is commandeered by the invading force and like the rest of his community he's forced to try and find gruelling and demeaning work to avoid the starvation and brutality bringing much of his country to its knees.

But the Japanese general stationed in town is a keen martial arts enthusiast, and he wants nothing more than to see the best fighters in town ply their trade – especially Ip Man. No matter how much he tries to keep his head down, protect his suffering family and not become a figurehead, martyr or corpse, Ip Man is going to have to come out of the shadows and fight and in doing so, become a heroic figure in the Chinese struggle against Japanese oppression.

I didn't really know what to expect and had no idea so much of the story was about the political dimension of how the war impacted traditional customs. It strikes a perfectly good balance between blistering action and mindful contemplation about its circumstances, just like the spirit of kung fu is supposed to entail (I'm not sure how overt a reference to martial arts teachings that was on the part of writers Edmond Wong and Tai-lee Chan).

You might treat it like porn and fast forward through the story and dialogue to the fight scenes, which is perfectly fine if that's what you're here for – they contain some gorgeous hand to hand combat photography and choreography.

But you'll be losing something by missing the background tale. While not the most nuanced writing or subtextual storytelling you've ever seen it will at least make you think about how cultures sometimes collide (and the way they did here).

It's also quite clever in that Ip Man's talent never falters. Another version of this story would have given him an opponent that's simply better than him – like Tom Hardy's Bane was to Christian Bale's Batman – and giving him the chance to train himself back to victory and redemption.

But it manages to maintain the drama even though Ip Man is so good he's quite simply unbeatable. When you look back on the movie you realise he hasn't lost a single fight – even during the big bad boss fight at the end, he's only matched by the fearsome Japanese General for a minute before his lightning fast skill wins out.

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