Watch the first Ip Man movie with Donnie Yen. Trash the rest, boycott the latest.
I think one was great. Two was a bit of a disappointment. Three was a freak. Four is simply just too much! Leave Bruce Lee’s Guru alone. Let him rest in peace, for the love of God! How many legends do you need to spin around that frail man who practiced a decidedly feminine style of Kung Fu?
For those who came in late, Ip Man was a Kung Fu exponent in Foshan, China. In 1949, he moved to Hong Kong for good, setting up a martial arts school where, drumrolls, Bruce Lee learned and excelled. For full story, google Ip Man yourself.
Let’s start with Donnie Yen, easily the best thing about the movie. We all know Kung-Fu actors start young, so when Donnie’s unassuming aristocrat - yes, it is possible to play an aristocrat unassumingly - stole the movie, the question everyone was asking, was, “Where have you been?” It so happens that Donnie has been around for a quite a while. Born in 1963 to a newspaper editor father and a martial-artist mother, he began practicing at the age of four. He trained at the Beijing Wushu Academy, under master Wu Bin, who also mentored Jet Li. His first movie role was as a stunt double in Miracle Fighters (1982). He was then 19. I could give you the rest of the IMDB dope, but I’d think 1963 and 1982 would have established that his career didn’t really take off. Until Once Upon a Time in China II.
Donnie played General Lan, Jet Li’s nemesis in the brilliantly choreographed film. This badass role earned him a supporting role nomination. He went on to becoming the meat of the historic Kung-Fu revival in mainstream Chinese cinema. But I gotta tell you, the gesticulation, the shouting, lines like ‘You traitor! I will end you’ simply weren’t Donnie’s thing. He never seemed convincing in those roles. Where he consistently stood out, was in the martial artistry. His skill, experience and age had made him the ideal alternative to Jackie Chan and Jet Li, who were now busy embarrassing themselves in movies like Tuxedo and Romeo Must Die. Donnie continued to exhibit potential. And then, Ip Man happened.
Ip Man - I
For once, Donnie was allowed to wind down the gesticulation and keep it subtle. He played an unassuming aristocrat in mid-1900s China. Yes, it is possible to play an aristocrat unassumingly. The most endearing part of Oriental film is the sub-text in every scene. For one (or two or three), the mildly exaggerated courtesies, the physical humour, the shared embarrassment, are somewhat common to Asian countries, particularly in the east.
Here’s one instance - a rough-and-tumble northerner barges into Ip Man’s home and demands a fight. Reluctantly, the master obliges. In the middle of the fight, Ip Man’s son cycles into the living room on his tricycle and passes on a message - “Mother asked you to finish the fight before he breaks any more vases.” Or in the very first scene, where he invites a challenger to first share lunch before out-fighting him in two minutes.
Decorum. That’s the word I was looking for. Donnie exudes decorum all through; in the way he keeps his Kung-Fu private, in how he handles the new Kung-Fu ‘Master’ and even even in poverty, how he keeps it together. Any hint of melodrama would have curdled the character, and it was a happy coincidence that Donnie’s style was a no-fat, lean meat variety.
Consequently, the scenes in which he lets a bit of the rage out, such as this one, right after a friend is shot dead, are all the more impressive.
The supporting cast was just right. No big names. A motley crew, some of whom you might recognise in movies like Kung-Fu Hustle; 10 points if you can tell me who I’m talking about.
The wife, the opportunistic policeman, the banker friend, the rough northerner, and of course, the Japanese nemesis, Miura.
Ip Man had one of the best final fights. Ever. Few Kung-Fu movies in the last two decades have relied solely on martial arts alone. Amid the excess of strings and props, this was Kung-Fu versus Karate at its most stylish. The ending of Jet Li’s Fearless is the only one I can think of that is better. I will admit the final fight in Fearless is light-years ahead, but if one looked at both movies in their entirety, the distance isn’t stellar.
That’s it. I’m done here. I can’t talk about the other movies - there have been four since, with a fifth on the way - because they’re all crap. The point of this post is to ask you to watch the original Ip Man and tell more people not to watch the others.