October 01, 2010

IP MAN (2008) - Donnie Yen vs the Japanese army

(2008, Hong Kong)

When he takes everyone on, feel sorry for the last man standing...

This is a gritty, tense historical drama showcasing spectacular fight scenes. I'm not into the martial arts genre particularly, partly because I need a good story to hang the action on, and I find them repetitive, unless they're exceptionally inventive like Jackie Chan's Hong Kong films.

But the historical setting of Ip Man, in a Chinese town besieged by Japanese troops, is an interesting scenario, with a strong story and a clear range of characters. The fight scenes, staged by Sammo Hung (who doesn't appear) are exceptionally impressive and varied in scale, setting and style.

The publicity for this has really hyped the fact that Ip Man himself, played by Donnie Yen, was a key figure in Bruce Lee's early martial arts training. But the events here take place just before World War II, decades before Ip Man met Lee. The story of their time together may be in the Ip Man sequel, as well as many other Ip Man movies that are have also been and are being made.

But it's the war setting is easily more dramatic than the Bruce Lee connection. While the Japanese are outgunning the Chinese in firepower, martial arts are seen as completely outdated and useless. Though the rival schools of fighting and philosophy, sitting side-by-side in the same quarter of town, are still popular and thriving. But Ip Man, the most accomplished teacher and fighter in town, is refusing to run such a school or even publicly demonstrate his superior skills.

When the Japanese army rolls into town to occupy the province, he's eventually forced to fight publicly, against the Japanese. They're keen to show that their unarmed fighting skills are better the Chinese. But who wants to when they're also holding guns?

This is a well acted and good looking production. While there are a couple of well-known Japanese actors in the cast, the story is heavily anti-Japanese. The short montage to represent the Japanese invasion China is heavy-handed and crassly staged. It underlines that there's a market for anti-Japanese sentiment at the moment, which really shouldn't be fuelled (see the article below). The brief use of CGI airplanes is also unnecessary, unconvincing and spoils the consistent look of the film.

It's a good story, focusing on one man's principles, but it doesn't offer insight into any history of the Japanese invasion (better see City of Life and Death instead) and it takes place decades before Ip Man met Bruce Lee. The DVD extras even spend time qualifying (backtracking) how long he actually taught Lee, or how much of this story has been 'dramatised'. This is an interesting and entertaining film, but I suspect it shouldn't be treated as any sort of documentary.

Director Wilson Yip has come a long way from the low-budget antics of Bio-Zombie (1998) and Donnie Yen gives an impressive and understated performance, a world away from his action hero image.

The UK DVD has some interesting extras about the film and the man, but mainly focusses on the Ip Man's fighting styles. It's also out on Blu-Ray in the US and UK.

Anti-Japanese sentiment seems to be at the core of the script for Ip Man, as argued here on Mister Hobbes.


  1. Hi, I'm going over "comments" to reach you because that's what you say to do on your blog, but my reason for contacting you is not to respond to your review here.
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  2. The anti-Japanese feeling is pretty much a given in kung fu movies and automatic in a Chinese film set during WW2. What impressed me about Ip Man, along with Donnie Yen's performance and the fight scenes, was the fall-and-rise arc for the main character that makes the war an analog for the Great Depression and the film a kind of counterpart to Ron Howard's underrated Cinderella Man. It's a martial-arts film I could readily recommend to people who feel dubious about the genre.