Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Master Ip Man

The Ip Man biopic has become a genre unto itself within the Hong Kong movie industry. With two filmmaking teams already offering their takes, art-house auteur Wong Kar-wai will soon enter the fray with his own Ip. However, internationally the contest is already more-or-less over. For martial arts enthusiasts, Donnie Yen personifies Ip in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man and its sequel. Why the bumper crop of Ip films? Even the tragically sheltered unfamiliar with Ip will recognize his most famous pupil: Bruce Lee. Though the Lee family tightly controls cinematic use of Lee’s name and likeness, Ip is fair game. Yip and action director Master Sammo Hung show viewers the roots of Lee’s Wing Chun in Ip Man (trailer here), which finally makes it into New York theaters this Friday, uncut and undubbed as it was meant to be seen (unlike the DVD edition currently available).

Based on the Ip films and Bodyguards and Assassins, Yen is arguably the world’s biggest action star at this time. Without him, The Expendables will probably be pretty expendable in certain markets, even with Jet Li and British kickboxer Gary Daniels (completely ignored in the American marketing campaign). Indeed, he is perfectly cast as Ip, effortlessly conveying the Master’s spiritual wisdom, while excelling at the fist-flailing action.

As the film opens, Ip Man is the man. He lives well and has the respect of his sifu peers in Foshan, the martial arts capitol of Southern China. Periodically, he is called upon to defend Foshan’s honor against upstarts looking to make their names. Good luck with that. Tragically, their salad days abruptly end with the Japanese occupation. With the Imperial Army using Foshan martial artists as punching bags, Ip is again called upon to defend the honor of his city and Wing Chun. Naturally, it all builds towards a big showdown with the deadly General Miura.

Though Ip Man is first and foremost a martial arts movie, it has the look of a finely crafted historical period drama. It also boasts a first rate cast, including HK superstar Simon Yam (Election, Tactical Unit) as Ip’s best friend, capitalist Chow Ching-chuen. Beautiful and classy, Chinese model Lynn Hung looks like the Donna Reed of 1930’s Foshan as Ip’s ever patient wife Cheung Wing-sing. While her part is woefully underwritten, she has nice on-screen chemistry with Yen.

Still, the action is the heart of Ip Man, choreographed with verve by Master Hung. Ip’s trademark flurry of reverse punches is all kinds of awesome to behold. Yet, the film always emphasizes Ip’s passion is for sparring not fighting. He is a man of peace who fights only when he must.

Ip Man is a great martial arts film. Dubbing is an abomination though, particularly with Ip’s big name cast, so martial arts fans are advised to see that real cut that set the house on fire when it screened at the New York Asian Film Festival. A very cool film with more substance than causal viewers might expect, Ip Man opens this Friday (10/1) in New York at Cinema Village.