Either through imitation or sheer innovation, Hong Kong cinema matures by the minute. At the start of the 20th century it was little more than an extension of the budding Chinese opera scene. By the time the Sino-Japanese War hit, the industry had changed into a medium for unification and nationalism. At the time, regionalism and local dialects kept division on the Chinese mainland. Yet early talkies brought Mandarin and Cantonese as the dominant languages and helped unify regional rivalries during the Japanese invasion. The language division existed through the CPC’s victory in 1949 and early martial arts films (such as the Wong Fei Hung series) began to take hold. By the 1980s, the cult status of the film in the West was gone – popularized by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan – and the industry commanded respect worldwide.
IP Man,then, can feel like a tribute to the evolution of the industry. Taking place before and during the Sino-Japanese War, the film chronicles the story of Yip Man, the grandmaster of Wing Chun. Starting in provincial Foshan, (Y)Ip Man (played by Donnie Yen) lives with his family and casually teaches his form of martial arts to gracious students and his not-so-humble competitors. When the Japanese invade in 1937, Foshan changes from a beautiful provincial province to an industrial hub for their foreign leaders. Ip Man’s casual lifestyle has to change as well. He can’t rely on the kindness of the town and his status in society anymore. As his family starves and his friends fall victim to the Japanese brutality, he becomes a coolie, shovelling coal. He ends his martial arts practice. A Japanese general comes to Foshan and institutes a new tournament, pitting Chinese martial artists against the Karate of the Japanese Army. Never wanting to use his skill for personal gain, the disappearance of villagers and the general welfare of his family leads him to enter the tournament. This film presents the story of a small town man becoming a national hero.
Inspired by true events, the story of Ip Man has been dramatized greatly in the film. Wing Chun as an art form would have died with Ip Man if it wasn’t for his almost-too-famous-to-mention-disciple-that-left-the-whole-world-in-awe. Donnie Yen conveys the demeanor of a family man forced to use his gifts for defense of his family. Yen took the role seriously, sticking to a meager diet, rigorous training, and mental focus on the spiritual side of the martial art. The result is apparent in almost every scene. Yen’s Ip Man seems introverted, aloof, and purposeful. His representation of Ip Man is as a philosophical ascetic martial arts master, negating the real life opium smoking policeman/martial artist. Furthermore, some of the most dramatic scenes push the mythology rather than history of the man, making the plot feel little more than a nationalist piece such as Zemlya or The Youth of Maxim.
Nevertheless, the scenes are intense, touching portrayals of rural life taken over by industrialism. Foshan, as you would expect, has changed dramatically since the 1930s, meaning the film had to be shot off-site. But the sets are awe-inspiring, showing the incredible trade and beauty of small-town China. The influence of Western trade pops up in unexpected places; the beauty of the small town is revered. The demonstrations of martial arts are clear and divergent, especially the demonstrations of karate against Wing Chun. These painstaking details of retaining the essence of 1930s China is not without credit. It brings the narrative to life in beautiful costumes, sweeping townhouses and mansions, and brings a tangible reality to the story.
“I’m just a Chinese man,” says Ip Man. The simplicity of the statement mirrors the apparent simplicity of Wing Chun. There is little flashy about Ip Man’s fighting ability, as simple and balanced as a solitary grain of rice. Rarely do you see an action film where the protagonist wins each fight without hurting his opponent until absolutely necessary. He is the every-man of China, confronting the frightening reality of Japanese occupation with a tremendous gift, the ability to fight back. It wouldn’t be a stretch to compare it to the story of Chinese cinema emerging out of the shadow of its Eastern and Western neighbors. Regardless of analogy, the film stands well on its own and might be Donnie Yen’s best film to date.