At once beholden to the established conventions of the genre and delightfully subversive of them, Ip Man is one of the most exciting — and refreshingly character-driven — martial arts films in years. Behind every great man there lies a teacher, and this was certainly true of Bruce Lee, who claimed as his mentor a martial arts expert named Ip Man (1893-1972). A genius of Wushu (or the Chinese martial arts school), Ip Man grew up in a China nearly ripped to pieces by racial hatred, nationalistic strife, and warfare. He rose like a phoenix above these ashes, however, courtesy of his participation in matches against various Wushu masters and kung fu warriors — ultimately training martial arts icons such as Lee. This biopic from director Wilson Yip dramatizes Ip’s life story.
It’s a biopic of sorts, focusing on a brief time in the life of Ip Man, also known as Yip Man, a grandmaster in the martial arts style of Wing Chun. The movie didn’t get a U.S. theatrical release, but to generate interest, the disc jacket states that he was the “mentor of iconic legend Bruce Lee” and reemphasizes that point on the back with “mentor to legendary kung fu superstar Bruce Lee.” While this may help sales, the information spoils the end of the movie!
Opening in 1935, the city of Fo Shan is known for many martial arts schools, but the most talented man appears to be Master Ip, played by Donnie Yen, who not only does a very good job meeting the physical requirements of the performance, as choreographed by action director Sammo Hung, but hits all the right emotional notes as well. The movie first reveals how skilled Ip is when Master Liu (Chen Zhihui) engages him in a friendly challenge one afternoon and Ip wins handily.
Later, an unfriendly challenge arrives on Ip’s doorstep. In an effort to open his own school, out-of-towner Jin (Louis Fan) challenges the local schoolmasters and leaves them beaten and bloody. Jin then wants to take on Ip, who has no interest, due in part to his wife’s (Lynn Xiong) disapproval of Ip’s constant focus on fighting. After a number of insults from Jin, Mrs. Ip gives her permission.
The movie then leaps ahead to 1937 when Japan invades China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The look of the movie changes as colors are desaturated with gray that evokes the oppression of the occupied Chinese. The population of Fo Shan drops from 300,000 to 70,000, and the Japanese Army takes over Ip’s house to make their headquarters. Ip eventually finds work in a coal mine.
While there, he discovers men are volunteering for martial arts fights against the Japanese. General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) watches and occasionally takes part. When a friend goes but never comes back, Ip volunteers to learn what happened and is outraged by what he finds. This leads to two epic fights, one against ten men, which is well executed but predictable even with the threat of death on the line. An epilogue presents the remainder of Ip Man’s life.