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Original Title:
Ip Man

Hong Kong / China 2008

Martial Arts, Drama

Wilson Yip

Donnie Yen
Simon Yam
Gordon Lam
Louis Fan
Hiroyuki Ikeuchi
Xiong Dailin
Xing Yu
Wong You-Nam
Hui Chen Zhi
To Yu-Hang

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Ip Man

Story: Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is the most honorable and skilled martial artist in Fo Shan. He is rich, yet modest in nature and is always challenged to a fight by new martial arts talents, among them Jin (Louis Fan). His wife (Xiong Dailin) isn't really happy about that and his friend Zhou (Simon Yam) would like to make him his business partner. However, the carefree days are over when Japan invades the country 1937 spreading fear and terror. Ip Man now has to live in poverty and even has to work at a coal mine in order to get something to eat for his family. On that occasion he also meets former policeman Li (Gordon Lam) again, who is now working as an interpreter for Japanese general Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi). Miura is looking for skilled martial artists he can compete with in a duel. After one of Ip Man's friends dies in such a battle and Zhou gets problems with the Japanese, Ip Man takes on the fight against the Japanese occupiers...

Review: Ip Man... Who is that? Another one of China's folk heroes? A second Wong Fei-Hung? Those questions are more easily answered when you know that Ip Man is the man who had a not so insignificant disciple by the name of Bruce Lee. He taught him a martial art form that is often, but absolutely wrongly, called women's kung fu: Wing Chun. But who was that man? "Ip Man" is a quasi-biopic that gives us some insight into the life of this martial artist during the Nanjing decade in the 30s and the following sino-Japanese war. "Quasi" because the film disregards some important historical facts concerning Ip and comes up with some new ones in favor for a better dramaturgy of the film. Therefore, you have to be careful what to believe of the events shown. What director Wilson Yip delivers in the end is a commercial, high-quality and very entertaining martial arts film that shows Donnie Yen in his best years at what he does best.

The parallels to "Fearless" in "Ip Man" are obvious. This China/Hong Kong production also sketches the life of a man who stood up to the Japanese and upheld Chinese national pride. This whole pathos stuff may be a little bit too much and the Japanese also get their just deserts, but when looking at this you have to consider, of course, that the Chinese had to suffer by the hands of the Japanese in the same way so many people had by the hands of the nazis. The national pride of the Chinese stems from the very fact that they didn't have such a thing at that time and were treated like animals. Naturally, "Ip Man" doesn't have the time to depict all the background events in its whole and so we have to settle for an evil general and his even worse subordinate as the representatives of the devilish Japanese.

The first half hour of the movie is rather light-hearted and introduces us to Ip Man's life in a big mansion and the good reputation he enjoys in Fo Shan, the city of martial artists. However, soon thereafter World War II hits the land and the colors of the movie get grey and gloomy. Naturally, the mood shifts accordingly and gets more dramatic. To see former martial artists carry coal all day or to watch them getting humilated in front of a general just to earn a bag of rice tell us how hard these times actually were. Interestingly enough, general Miura isn't your typical Japanese villian, this role is taken on by his trigger-happy subordinate. Instead he is someone who is enthusiastic about martial arts and therefore also has a certain sense of honor. Moreover, there is also Louis Fan who fills the shoes of a thug in a supporting role. You know, there is strong demand of people Donnie Yen can bring down with his lightning-quick moves and Fan seemingly just serves that purpose.

Which brings us to the fights that were choreographed by no other than Sammo Hung, thus being the true highlight of the movie. Additionally, Donnie Yen is someone who knows how to look good on screen as he practices nothing else for decades already. Surprisingly, he let's his ego have a backseat this time and tries to look a bit more modest. But all of that isn't really important, the only thing that is are the fights and they are really breathtaking. Wing Chun is a fascinating martial art because of its lightning-speed punches which unite offense and defense at the same time. Moreover, Donnie Yen is someone who can display the quickness of this martial art in a truely impressive manner. During the fights gracefullness and brutality go hand in hand in a wonderfully harminous way, so that there is not just adrenaline getting pumped through your veins, but at the same time you can't stop being constantly amazed by what you see. Donnie Yen also gets to face appropriate opponents in the shape of Louis Fan and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, but the movie's true highlight is his fight against ten Japanese students at the same time, because this is when he shows off how quick and effective Wing Chung actually is. It's just a shame that no one really seems to be a match for Ip Man. Those who enter a fight with him are already beaten before they know it. This is a welcome change considering the procedure that we are used to see from martial arts flicks, but tension-wise it's a questionable decision.

Anyway, martial arts fans can rest assured, because they absolutely get their money's worth. Therefore, it's not really to be considered a downside that the movie doesn't stick completely to the real life of Ip, even though hiring Ip Man's oldest son as a consultant. However, it's nice to see that every fight has some sort of (emotional) motivation and brawls aren't simply thrown in for good measure and the fact that Donnie Yen is in the mean lead, as well as the fact that filmmakers needed to do so because the story is about Ip Man. Yet, you shouldn't expect any real revelations acting-wise. The portrayals serve their purpose, Donnie Yen plays his part surprisingly reserved, Louis Fan on the other hand is acting very comic-like, Simon Yam and the rest of the cast don't get a lot to do, though. Only Gordon Lam ("Election", "Exiled") can deliver a surprisingly complex role. As a former police officer he tries to take care of his family under Japanese occupation without becoming a traitor to his own people.

"Ip Man" oozes out quality. Director Wilson Yip works with Donnie Yen in a movie for the fourth consecutive time after "SPL", "Dragon Tiger Gate" and "Flash Point", thus, the two prove to work as a real team. Edmond Wong delivers a solid script, which just lacks some more detail concerning the drawing of the characters, and Kenji Kawaii is responsible for the soundtrack. The pictures all look polished, the cinematography really is easy to the eyes and once more seems to take a page out of "Fearless"' book. Latter one is without a doubt still the better movie, nonetheless, "Ip Man" remains a well-done martial arts biopic, that can score with its fights. A sequel is already planned and hopefully will focus more on the human side of Ip Man. Martial arts fans will get their treat, anyway.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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