Starring: Donnie Yen, Ka Tung Lam, Simon Yam
Director: Wilson Yip
Running Time: 106 mins
Ip Man is a Chinese/Hong Kong film about the story of Ip Man, a Kung Fu master in wartime-era Guangdong, and his role in protecting his city from gangsters and the devastating Japanese occupation.
I really liked this film, and that’s something that surprises me, given that the charm and spectacle of even the most acclaimed modern martial arts movies (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero) have rather eluded me. However, Ip Man uses martial arts brilliantly in a biographical context, combining the entertainment factor of fast-paced, exciting fight choreography with a grittier, darker premise that brings gravitas and real intrigue to the film right the way through.
So, while my reservations about many other modern martial arts movies are that they’re a little too much style over substance, Ip Man manages to get that balance pretty much perfect the whole way through, and for all its brilliant action, what makes the film really stand out is the darker extremes its story reaches into through the course of its second and third acts, when the Japanese occupation takes hold in the city of Foshan.
The film opens with a slightly more generic martial arts approach, with the most skilled fighter in all of Foshan being admired by everyone, managing to fight off countless threats to the safety of the city, but it gradually introduces more interesting dramatic themes, moving away from simply showing off Donnie Yen’s brilliant fighting skills and focusing a little more on how Ip Man’s mentality and family influenced his later life.
As a result, the film may not be an immediately enthralling watch, but it does have enough fast-paced action and exhilarating martial arts skills early on to entice and entertain you, gradually bringing in its most interesting ideas as we move from the relative comfort of prewar society to the total devastation of life under Imperial Japanese occupation.
From there, the film ingeniously uses the suddenly desperate and hopeless situation for all the locals in tandem with the city’s history in martial arts – which has just been introduced to you in the first act – thereby giving the fight scenes a whole lot more gravitas and importance than the skills show that was the opening stage of the movie.
As Ip’s life takes a dramatic turn for the worse, with the terrible living conditions he and his family are forced into making all seem without hope, we see his martial arts skills take on a whole new meaning, leading to a number of enthralling and often genuinely powerful action sequences that are far, far more effective than the style over substance I have come to expect from the genre.
With that, Ip Man proves both a dramatically riveting and entertainingly action-packed watch throughout, and while there are elements of its final act that perhaps don’t quite produce the dramatic impact that often seems on the horizon, there’s no denying how engrossing and exciting this movie is from beginning to end, and certainly the best modern martial arts film I’ve seen, which is why I’m giving it an 8.0 overall.