Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ip Man

I'm off until January 3rd, and one of my projects during this time is to relax with as many martial arts movies as I can fit in. So expect to see a lot of reviews over the next couple weeks. This afternoon, I watched Ip Man for the first time.

Ip Man is a 'biopic' but - from the little I have read - it's probably only loosely based on its subject's actual life. Played by Donnie Yen (also seen in Hero and Seven Swords), Ip Man is a supremely talented martial artist who lives peacefully in Fo Shan, a place renowned for its martial artists. The Japanese invasion of China during WWII destroys his idyllic existence. Master Ip and everyone around him are suddenly poor and life becomes a brutal struggle for existence. In the movie, the former Fo Shan masters have to resort to going to a 'fight club' in order to earn bags of rice to stay alive. The film does a very good job of conveying the harsh existence of the time.

In the title role, Donnie Yen's serene presence works very well. I've noticed in all of his films that he has this calm but powerful vibe emanating from him. It makes him a great choice to play a martial arts master. However, he is also able to convey deep emotion just by very subtle things he does with his face or posture. For instance, when he smiles, it's so rare that it takes on major importance. When he calls the translator Li a traitor, there's a sudden hardness in his face that's just a shade different from his usual stoicism, but it's enough and it tells you everything you need to know. I found myself just watching him very closely because of this, and his performance rewarded the attention.

Admittedly, the plot of Ip Man is rather thin. There are several characters with arcs of one sort or another, but the movie ends up focused mostly on the horrors of life under the Japanese occupation as opposed to any deep insight into Master Ip or his philosophy (though there is certainly some of that to be found here). One big plus to this was that it left room for a lot of martial arts sequences to be smoothly woven into the story.

On the downside the focus on the occupation - especially through the dingy, depressing light in which these scenes are filmed - rendered Ip Man a bit cold and soulless at times. I feel like a good martial arts movie, even one dealing with dark or tragic subjects, should still reflect the spirit of the martial arts (which is not about darkness or post-modern angst). While the movie clearly wants to convey the horrors of occupation, I think it would have been a better move (and more poignant) to rely upon the actors and characters to get this across. For example, the scene where Master Ip confesses to his wife how useless he feels was extremely touching, as was the scene when Yuan opens the mysterious tin box his brother had been searching for. The desperation of the millworkers and that of the bandits who blackmail them was also compelling, but this conflict really didn't go anywhere specific.

Overall, I liked Ip Man and found it very moving, and I guess I'm picking at it because it's good enough to merit that kind of dissection. Most importantly, the martial arts sequences in Ip Man are very good. Much of the close-in fighting is especially tight and furious (and from what I understand the Wing Chun form is more about fighting at close range). Master Ip and Master Liu (another of the former Fo Shan masters) both had moves that make you want to reach for the rewind button. There was also great work from the actor who played the scruffy challenger from the north. A few less cuts would have enhanced the WOW! factor at times, and there is some unneeded use of wire fu. Not dissing wire fu in total, but the fact is that the best martial arts movies are the ones where you can best see the artists showing their skills with 'no strings attached' (that's why we watch!). So if you have good artists in the movie, it should be used sparingly. That said, Ip Man definitely delivers plenty of good martial arts, as well as a great performance from Donnie Yen and very moving story. Excellent movie!

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