Director: Wilson Yip. Starring: Donnie Yen. Hong Kong/China 2008 + 2010. 106 mins + 104 mins. Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles.
A slice of revisionist history wound around some brilliantly ridiculous kung fu, IP MAN is a riotous tale of honour, fighting and broom handles. Set against the backdrop of recent Chinese history, Wilson Yip’s ultra-successful diptych ‘retells’ the story of one of China’s most celebrated martial arts grandmasters. Most famous for having trained Bruce Lee, the brilliantly monikered Ip Man was the scion of the art of Wing Chun, a style of fighting developed in the early 20th century that played a key role in political resistance against the Qing dynasty. It’s that history, combining politics and punching, that drives IP MAN. And the punching is flamboyant and plentiful.
As ever in the kung fu movie universe, it’s the set pieces that count. Choreographed by Sammo Hung, and aided by Ip’s eldest son Ip Chun, Yip’s film is a smorgasbord of balletic combat. With everything from broom handles to ten-foot poles to a farcically brutal sequence in which Ip systematically breaks ten men (readers are advised to check YouTube immediately), the film features the level of conflict that made films such as HERO and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON such monstrous hits. Shot through with a kind of operatic style befitting the recreation of a legend, the film achieves a stately yet overblown quality.
IP MAN 2 is more focused on plot than its predecessor, with British colonial rulers proving the ultimate enemy. A British boxer known as the Twister (or Whirlwind to the locals), who ruthlessly attacks local fighters to prove his superiority, represents the oppressor; Ip Man’s spectacular set-piece battle with him acts as a commentary on Western and Eastern styles and philosophies. A pitched battle of brute strength versus technique and inner calm, it’s another example of the series’ blend of historical commentary and spectacular fighting.
Later, IP MAN 2 comes full circle with its character, sending Yen home to a peaceful family life after his final moral victory, and to an encounter with the young Bruce Lee, who would later make his name. Having returned Ip Man to a simple existence, the film’s ultimate message is clear – exalting the myths of China’s modern history, brushing aside its enemies, and making a case for the graceful brutality of its combat. That nobody else does things quite like this is undeniable; the result is a work of sheer cinematic spectacle.