Strongly recalling the best Hong Kong studio productions of the ’70s, period chopsocky “Ip Man” will be manna for those who like their kung fu straight and wireless, their villains Japanese and their heroes unconflicted Chinese patriots. A very loose biopic of the early life of Ip Man, pioneer of Wing Chun fighting and later master to Bruce Lee, this Donnie Yen starrer proved a surprise hit in Asia over the Xmas frame, with a sequel already in the works. Western ancillary looks strong among fans of classic H.K. cinema, with midnight fest slots also beckoning.
With its pared-down plot, ’30s China backlot sets and character expressed via fighting, there’s such a consciously old-fashioned feel that you almost expect Angela Mao to pop into frame and finish off a few Nipponese baddies. Jet Li starrer “Fearless,” also about a kung fu grandmaster, had a similarly old-fashioned disdain for modern-day wire-fu, as do the pics of Thai enfant terrible Tony Jaa. But with Yen’s dignified title perf and helmer Nelson Yip’s unflashy use of widescreen, “Ip Man” positively luxuriates in its retro glory.
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Yarn opens in 1935, just prior to the Sino-Japanese War, in Foshan, Guangdong province, where there’s a martial arts school on every corner. However, undisputed numero uno is Ip Man (Yen), who doesn’t give classes, is a paragon of humility and, when challenged by rivals, fights them behind closed doors to protect them from embarrassment when beaten.
Opening half-hour establishes Ip’s minimalist style and unflappable courtesy, as he politely demolishes newcomer master Liao (Chen Zhihui) and then whips the ass of a pugnacious Northern thug (Fan Siu-wong) with a feather-duster. Marbled with humor and inventiveness, and employing just occasional slo-mo, these fight scenes, directed by vet action star Sammo Hung, grip through their sheer virtuosity rather than visual flash.
Story proper begins in the second act, set in 1938, after the Japanese have reached Foshan, the population has shrunk from 300,000 to 70,000, and Ip and his family are destitute. With his wife (Lynn Hung) sick, Ip finds work at a coal mine alongside other former martial artists, who are demeaningly offered bags of rice by the local commander, Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), to take part in competitions vs. Japanese fighters in his private dojo.
Scene is thus set for a classic demonstration of the superiority of Chinese over Nipponese martial arts as Ip, following the death of Liao, takes on 10 Japanese without hardly breaking a sweat. Third act finds him agreeing to teach the bullied staff of a cotton mill owned by old friend Zhou Qingquan (Simon Yam) and then taking on Miura himself in a public mano-a-mano.
Yen, who’s taking on real star charisma in middle age, is aces as Ip, with a simple dignity that exactly mirrors the movie’s own and a gracefulness in combat that’s very different from his trademark whiplash style. Supporting perfs are strong, from Yam’s silky smooth businessman to Lam Ka-tung’s cop-turned-collaborator Li Zhao.