UK Release Date:
Showbox Home Entertainment
Ip Man was a legendary Wing Chun artist and master to Bruce Lee. This dramatisation focuses on an early portion of his life story, before his first meeting with Lee. Starring a slimmed-down Donnie Yen in the title role, the film opens in 1935 in the thriving town of Foshun, a famed martial arts centre stuffed with kung fu schools jostling for supremacy. Ip is a man of independent means, and lives in a large house with his wife and young son, practising alone, refusing to take pupils, and slow to rise to a fight despite taunts about Wing Chun’s origins as self defence for women. Then, the Japanese roll in and everything changes. Martial arts are no longer just a game; they are a means of survival and a matter of national honour.
The meticulous set design and elegant cinematography vividly render both the colourful hubbub of pre-invasion Foshun and the grey shell it becomes, yet remain in service to the story rather than drifting off into the aesthetic rhapsodies of recent wuxia epics. The fighting, similarly, eschews silly floating around and concentrates on aggressive close combat, as you’d hope from a film about the practical, direct Wing Chun fighting style; Yen is impressive and there are some remarkable set pieces. The comedy is nicely executed, particularly in early scenes where Ip’s wife gets cross with him for messing around and fighting when he should be spending time with his son. But what carries Ip Man is its dramatic charge: it is the story’s entanglement in the real horrors of Japanese occupation that pulls the viewer in and builds tension into the fight scenes. The effective shift from a playful to weighty tone, however, doesn’t save the film from being let down by an occasionally stuttering momentum: the most spectacular fight is when Ip takes on 10 Japanese soldiers, using his skills in anger for the first time; his final one-on-one showdown with the Japanese commander lacks a similar impact, generating a sense of anti-climax which is compounded by the open-endedness of a film too obviously gearing up for a sequel.