Ip Man on Blu-Ray

Saturday, 24 October 2009 11:05

It seems odd that it has taken this long to produce a movie about the man who taught Bruce Lee the art of kung fu. Behind every legend is a teacher. In this case, the fascinating character of Ip Man takes centre stage, played by Donnie Yen, a renowned martial artist in his own right and a star of dozens of action movies such as “Shanghai Knights”, “Iron Monkey” and “Blade 2”.

Opening in the Southern settlement of Foshan in 1935, the film quickly establishes that Ip Man, a Master of the martial arts discipline of Wing Chun, is a man of great integrity and humility, not to mention a stunning fighter. Challenged to a private, friendly duel  by the Master of a neighbouring kung fu school, Master Ip wastes no time or effort in making the other teacher’s skills look utterly pedestrian.

Ip Man on DVD and Blu-RayUnfortunately for them, a teenager witnesses the bout, and so the news spreads that Master Ip crushed his opponent. Forced into a tight corner by the shamed loser, our hero reveals that his diplomatic skills are not to be reckoned with either, as he deftly avoids a far uglier confrontation even though he knows he would easily win. His local reputation quickly grows after he single-handedly repels a gang of Northern thugs, but only after they have flattened every other kung fu Master in the area!

The themes and beats of this impressive opening are repeated throughout the rest of the movie, albeit in a grander scale. Later on, we move forwards to World War 2 and the ruthless occupation of China by the Japanese. Master Ip, his wife and small boy are forced out of their luxurious home, and into a desperate life of constant hunger, dirt and discomfort. Rather than mis-using his fighting skills to make money by turning to a life of crime, as the local gang of thugs has, Ip is grateful for the grimy work a local colliery manager offers him. He also saves most of his work rations for his family, yet still labours earnestly.

It is at the coal plant that Master Ip comes to the attention of a proud and steely, but largely honourable Japanese General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, a newcomer to martial arts, but you would never know it!). The General is keen to test and improve his troops’ martial arts prowess against the skill of the local workers, rewarding any successful Chinese combatants with bags of rice. Master Ip, not normally one to show off his fighting talent in public, is incensed after learning of a friend’s brutal encounter at the hands of the Japanese, and comes forward to avenge his compatriot. The resulting fight sets the stage for an inevitable showdown between the General and Ip, with the spiritual weight of the Chinese people riding on his shoulders.

Director Wilson Yip and Yen have collaborated on a few films before, and the combination of their experience and that of martial arts choreographer Sammo Hung (close friend of and co-star on many of Jackie Chan’s Eastern movies) means that “Ip Man” has some huge names behind it. It also has a lot of financial backing and the result is very lavish, with stunning sets, costumes and thrilling action sequences. Like Yen’s portrayal of Ip, the movie is supremely confident in its abilities and yet not at all showy or brash. First and foremost, the fight scenes are stunning spectacles of lighting-fast, electrifying combat. Wirework is clearly evident but kept to a semi-realistic level, so there is no flying about and leaping over buildings. Instead, characters manage slightly higher than usual leaps and flips, and the combat feels genuine in a hyper-real sort of way.

Yen is undoubtedly the star of the show in all senses, oozing strength, quiet but assured confidence and an astounding array of moves. His speed and flexibility are all the more impressive given that he is in his mid-Forties. Those pitted against him include the aforementioned General, an equally calm but proud man, sharing Ip’s dedication to his nation and commitment to honourable conduct. Special mention should also go to Sui-Wong Fan as Jin Shan Zhao, the leader of the Northern gang who takes the opposite path to Master Ip, and uses his skills for extortion and robbery. Their paths cross several times, and on each occasion the amazing fights bristle with fierce energy.

Yip pitches the movie just right, acknowledging that it is primarily a fight movie, but still spending considerable time and effort on the setting and getting across a message about wartime struggle and personal integrity and inner strength. Ip’s loyalty is first and foremost to his family, hence his obligation to remain law-abiding and not draw attention to himself. However, on other levels he and others are willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of an extra bag of rice for their co-workers, and ultimately he gets a chance to resist the subjugation of China without straying from his heart-felt values and code of conduct.

The war-time setting of the second half of the film is convincingly established, and yet the producers know they are best served by keeping the focus to the Foshan locality rather than trying to represent the war on an international or even national scale. Therefore we witness troop-laden vehicles patrolling familiar streets and Japanese flags and propaganda festooning every wall and rooftop. Having first got to know a little about the town and its inhabitants, we next see the buildings after they have been raised to the ground or occupied, and the local folk humbled before the might of the Japanese. But their spirit lives on, and Ip Man is a focal point for their hopes and national pride. This might make the movie sound too pompous and jingoistic, but that really is not the case, especially given the context.

“Ip Man” was the winner of the “Best Picture” and “Best Action Choreography” awards at the 2009 Hong Kong Film Awards, and I am only too glad to report that it is an absolute must for fans of martial arts, especially those looking for a bit more feeling, substance and emotion than you might normally expect from a genre movie. The fight scenes are scintillating, the acting and characterisation are compelling, and the production values are second-to-none.

As an added bonus, the DVD and Blu-ray “Ultimate” versions come with a huge array of special features including: nine cast/crew interviews, three making-of featurettes, a production gallery, gala premiere footage, three location featurettes, five deleted scenes, trailers for this movie and other releases. The highlight for martial arts fans, though, is a high-def (on Blu-ray) piece featuring Dan Inosanto, Bruce Lee’s senior student. In it, Dan demonstrates the principles of Wing Chun, and then goes on to explain how and why Lee developed Jeet Kune Do, his own hybrid fighting style.

The DVD and Blu-ray discs are released on the Cine-Asia label on 26 October, priced £15.99 and £19.99 respectively, Certificate '15'.

A sequel to the film is due for release in 2010.

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Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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