Summary: Donnie Yen, GOOD, other guys, BAD, mostly for the sake of posturing and pride.
Not having much background knowledge of this movie other than “Donnie Yen is in it,” I was expecting a straight up action piece with very little story and character development. I was dead wrong. Let’s shelve this under “Things I Wish I Saw Earlier.” I’m ashamed to say I had people telling me to watch Ip Man for years and I instead watched Tombstone or something else for a repeated viewing. (I’m not as ashamed to declare my favorite Donnie Yen movie is Shanghai Knights!)
Ip Man tells the humble origins of Master Ip, Wing Chun instructor and Chinese Martial Artist, better known as the man that would train Bruce Lee. Typically peaceful with almost a Dumbledore-like demeanor, Ip Man (played by the always welcome Yen) has always refused to teach others or open his own martial arts school. It isn’t until his home of Foshan is threatened by the Japanese invasion in World War II that Ip is willing to rise to the challenge.
It’s a fairly simple story, with simple characters and a simple arc that’s immediately accessible and understandable. I have no problem with this because everything else- the choreography, the cuts, the tracking shots, the music- is crazy complicated and I mean that in a good way, if not, the best of ways. The simplicity of the plot points lets us focus in on the action scenes, which are long, enjoyable to watch, AND progressive of the story. There’s a lot of fun to be had here and the director and stunt team waste no time in getting to the good stuff.
The fight choreography is immaculate and highly reminiscent of 90’s kung fu movies- think pre-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wire and slow-motion craze, more Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx or even Mortal Kombat. There’s a real practicality and dirtiness to it- we see the landing of each blow and in some cases, the rippling of cheeks and other body parts from impact. While there’s a fastness to all the chaos, it never seems humanly impossible and it’s clear these are trained fighters with natural movement. And while it’s all staged and magic of cinema and yadda yadda yadda, nothing ever feels truly safe either. There are plenty of moments of “ouch” and “ewwww.” As a further bonus, the fight scenes are used to establish the character’s skills and attitudes towards each other- Yen and company do a superb job of showing exactly where a fight sways in one’s favor and how the characters lose or gain their nerve. This helps to move the story along, rather than stalling it, something that happens all too often in other fight-centric movies.
The only thing that’s more outstanding than the fighting scenes are the lead-up shots to said-fighting scenes. Seriously, I’ve never been more pumped for a fist fight. Palpable tension is set with simple movement and little dialogue, complimented with zooms and some nice, swooping crane shots. You just know you’re about to see something go down. In general, the smooth camera work is outstanding, perfectly framing all the chaos by weaving wide shots and close-ups. Nothing is too long or too short here and we don’t get that annoying, fast and choppy editing. We actually get to see everything from start to finish. It’s glorious.
With a runtime of only an hour and forty minutes, there are very few slow moments in Ip Man. Mostly those that come with the overly dramatic sequences are long, but they never feel out of place and do their job of setting the tone for the final battle between Ip and Japanese General Miura (this scene does not disappoint and Miura is a great villain with pockets of dimension other than being purely evil). I will say that the beginning doesn’t really serve the rest of the movie, minus establishing Ip as an all-around badass and giving us a little West Side Story vibe- the Northern gang is set up as Ip’s main nemesis and then kind of drifts off into not much else other than “See, we ARE ready for the General!” It’s meh, but I’ll take it if it means getting to watch Yen prance around without breaking a sweat. (He also gets some great, dry comedic moments in this- his simple body language when a tricycle appears killed me.)
Ip Man does a spectacular job of lifting kung fu out of the hokiness, overly exaggerated facial expressions, and bad lip syncing that most people assume. (Watch the close to perfect Kung Fu Hustle for everything you need to know about the genre.) The genre is subverted while still remaining a classic martial arts piece- the surface is a kung fu movie, but it’s infused with modern camera tricks and music which gives it a timeless yet traditional sense. I was unexpectedly delighted by Ip Man and its balancing act- and you should be too!