Stars: Dennis To, Fan Siu-wong, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung, Huang Yi, Rose Chan | Written by Erica Lee | Directed by Herman Yau
Review by Baron Fortnightly
The Legend is Born: Ip Man is a 2010 Hong Kong semi-biographical martial arts film about the early life of Ip Man (also spelled as Yip Man) and his journey to becoming a Wing Chun master whilst resisting the influence of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, aims to dominate China and secure its vast raw resources. Ip is probably most famous in the West as the teacher of legendary martial arts actor Bruce Lee.
The film starts with a montage of images and banners from the early 1900s, of the increasingly nationalistic Chinese resisting pressure from Japan who in 1915 issued the Twenty-One Demands to extort political and commercial privilege from China after the First Sino-Japanese War. This won’t mean much to casual viewers, but even so you get the impression that the Japanese are the bad guys, and China is in some turmoil, although much of this film takes place before the demands are issued and well before the Second Sino-Japanese War. After the credits we are introduced to Ip Man (Dennis To) and his adopted brother Ip Tin-chi (Fan Siu-wong) when their father enrols them at the school of 70 year old Wing Chun master Chan Wah-shun (played very understated but brilliantly by Sammo Hung).
At this point you might be thinking “No it was Donnie Yen who played Ip Man!”, well he did in Ip Man and Ip Man 2, which covered his later life during the Second Sino-Japanese War and escape to Hong Kong. However both Sammo Hung and Fan Siu-wong are in Ip Man, but as different characters.
Dennis To plays a great Ip Man, even as a young man he’s portrayed as driven, with an intense passion for Wing Chun, who’s interested in the exchange of ideas between the East and West. He’s a calm, collected fighter who steps in to defend the bullied and acts like a master even at a young age. His moves seem effortless, with adversaries punching at thin air and stepping into his fights. Ip leaves the school in Foshan and goes off to study in Hong Kong at St Stephens College. After a hockey match Ip and his friends are confronted by a Western bigot, who he makes quick work of taking down a couple of pegs. Word of his martial arts skill quickly spreads around Hong Kong and without anyone to challenge him he gets a bit cocky. That is until he meets Leung Bik, an old shopkeeper (played by Ip Chun, the son of Ip Man), who kicks him around his shop to prove that skill and knowledge beat strength, youth and cockiness.
Leung Bik trains Ip Man in his own form of Wing Chun, in a typical training montage, and shows him that changes and adaptation are necessary to develop as a martial artist. One cannot be handcuffed by tradition. This new form of Wing Chun impresses Ip’s class mates when he returns to Foshan, but his Sifu, Ng Chung So (the great Yuen Biao) isn’t at all impressed and believes this new knowledge dishonours Ip and anyone who learns it. Running parallel to the classic martial arts story is a romance, after Ip meets the Cheung Wing-shing (Huang Yi), daughter of the vice-mayor. Things do not run smoothly as female martial arts student, Li Mei Wai (Rose Chan), secretly carries a torch for Ip, but she herself is the object of affection of his adopted brother.
I’m not sure how true to the real Ip Man’s life this film is; It’s powerful in places, reminiscent of Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury, with their depiction of a chaotic China under the thumb of the more organised Japan. The twist at the end of the film is crazy and I find it hard to believe these events actually happened, I guess that’s where the “semi” in semi-biographical comes from. That aside the fight scenes are all great, with lots of trademark Wing Chun lightning fast punches and low kicks, some deft wirework, and exciting pole and sword fighting. For me the best scene of the film was the brilliant demonstration of push hands by Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, a martial arts exercise that relies on sensing your opponent’s chi energy and redirecting it. They do this blind folded, and quickly move from the measured, flowing back and forth of push hands into a full on sparing session with pin point accuracy, whilst still blind folded.
This 100 minute film comes with burnt in English subtitles, 5.1 and 2.0 Chinese audio. Special features are limited to a making of feature that lasts for 13 minutes, it’s okay, but really just some behind the scenes footage and interviews with the cast and director.