by Del Harvey
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Ip Man is loosely based upon the life of Yip Man, considered the first martial arts master and an inspiration to a number of later masters and practitioners, include martial arts legend Bruce Lee. Born in 1893, Yip Man began learning Wang Chun, a martial arts style, when he was 13.
Ip Man, the film, focuses upon events in Ip’s life when he lived in the city of Foshan during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Directed by Wilson Yip, the film stars Donnie Yen as Ip Man, and features martial arts choreography by actor/martial artist Sammo Hung. In addition to some very fine acting from Yen and a supporting cast which includes Simon Yam, the film is visually stunning, thanks not only to the cinematography and fight choreography, but also to some very finely crafted and detailed set and production design.
Foshan was a district well-known for its various martial arts schools, which actively recruited disciples and competed against each other. Although the Wing Chun master Ip Man is the most skilled martial artist in Foshan, he is a most unassuming individual and a family man, and maintains a low profile. Also an independently wealthy man, he feels no need to accept disciples and instead spends his days training, meeting with friends, and spending time with his family—although his wife is often resentful of the time he spends training and discussing martial arts with friends and colleagues.
Though not a professional martial artist, Ip is widely respected throughout Foshan due to the abilities he displays in friendly, closed-door competitions with local masters. Ip’s reputation grows when he defeats an aggressive, rude, but highly skilled Northern master, Jin Shanzhao. A stranger to the town who has systematically defeated the master’s of each school, his victory serves to uphold the regional pride of fellow Southern stylists as well as the people of Foshan.
When the Japanese invade China in 1937, everyone through the nation - including Foshan, is affected. Ip’s house is claimed by the Japanese and used as their local headquarters. Ip and his family lose their wealth as well as their home, and live hand to mouth until Ip sees he must take a job, finally accepting work as a coolie at a coal mine.
Miura, the Japanese colonel, is a master of the Japanese martial art Karate, and establishes an arena where Chinese martial artists compete with his military trainees. The Chinese martial artists earn a bag of rice for every Japanese opponent they defeat. When one of his friends goes missing, Ip seeks him out and in so doing discovers the matches.
Ip is at first disturbed by the spectacle, then further enraged when he witnesses a fellow Foshan master killed after failing to defeat three Japanese opponents at one time. Further complicating matters is Ip’s discovery that his friend and former police officer Li Zhao is now working as a translator for the Japanese. Overcome by an uncharacteristic rage, Ip demands a match with ten Japanese martial artists at once, defeating them with ease, if not brutal abandon. His abilities arouse the interest of Miura, who seeks to learn more about Ip and to learn from his fighting style.
But Ip is not interested. His gentle, peaceful demeanor has been shaken by his experience, and he is torn between the anger he feels towards anyone who would seek to destroy the lives of others and the need to keep his family and friends safe from harm.
Although this is not the first time we have seen a master martial artist rise up against seemingly unbeatable odds, what makes Ip Man’s story unique is what inspired his need to rise up against those odds; the need to resist tyranny and the threat to freedom. Something so simple and evil can drive even the most peaceful of warriors to do the most vicious acts.
Boasting a lush production, superb performances, and exciting fight choreography, Ip Man is one of the great martial arts films.
Releasing on July 27, Ip Man will include the following special features:
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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