For whatever reason, when I first heard of Ip Man (2008), I assumed it was some sort of strange science-fiction/martial arts combination. Thus I wrote it off, even on nights when I was scouring streaming services for something to watch. I mean, “IP Man” could be anything, from something having to do with computers to a Chinese superhero. This latter supposition is closer to the truth, actually. What I got when I finally worked my way down to it on the long list of movies that was suggested to me a few weeks ago was a historical drama about China in the late 1930s that incorporates kung fu. It was pretty good too, though I could not help but compare it to another similar movie starring Jet Li called Fearless (2006). While the parallels between the two are pretty striking, Ip Man is unique enough to stand on its own and do pretty well at it.
The titular character of Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is a humble but prosperous Wing Chun master living with his wife Cheung (Lynn Xiong) and young son in Fo Shan, China, in 1937. It is sort of like the Wild West, at least in regards to martial arts, where anybody who has any skill goes around challenging each other to friendly duels. Everybody in town loves Master Ip because in addition to being the most skilled, he also has a humble gentleness (despite his artistry with his fists) to which people gravitate. This relative peacefulness is disrupted one day when Jin (Siu-Wong Fan) shows up and starts beating up all the other masters in town in a bid to establish dominance and make it so that anyone who wants to learn kung fu has to come through him. Master Ip handily defeats Jin, but shortly thereafter everything falls apart as the Japanese invade China. Ip Man’s family is reduced to poverty and he and his fellow Fo Shan townspeople are forced to scrape together a living basically enslaving themselves to the Japanese. For sport, the local commander, General Miura (Hiroyuke Ikeuchi), brings in local men who have some skill in fighting in order to test his nations’ karate against the conquered. Mostly he observes, but when Ip Man’s friend Lin (Xing Yu) is killed for refusing to know when he was beaten, it brings Ip Man into the ring. The other thing that Ip Man is concerned about is providing for his family, and he leaves before General Miura could challenge him. In Ip Man, General Miura sees an opponent who, if beaten, could do a great do a great deal of psychological damage to the subjugated populace. But General Miura does not know how to find Ip Man. It is not until a scuffle breaks out at a local cotton factory that Jin had been raiding (he had not gone away completely) that he is able to bring in the Wing Chun master. Ip Man is told to lose or it would result in his death and harsh repercussions on his friends and family. He would not go down, though, and after defeating General Miura the locals who turned out to watch the match rise up and spirit away the wounded (after winning, one of General Miura’s officers shoots him) Ip Man and his family.
As somebody who has dabbled in martial arts in my life, I appreciate such movies as Ip Man. I was given an extra layer of pleasure when I found out that it was also a piece of actual history. The thing about martial arts films, though, is that they often have to work hard for a reason for people to be fighting. That is, of course, if you care at all about plot. While this movie does deal with real events, it is really character driven. The scenes early on, even if they seem like a bunch of random bouts of fisticuffs because what else is there to do in 1930s China, in reality serve quite well to establish Ip Man’s character. While he does seem to enjoy testing his skills against his opponents, you can tell that he does not see punching and kicking as the end all of life. This is particularly true when the Japanese first arrive and the only work he can find is by shoveling coal. Still, Ip Man is not perfect. At times he has feelings of uselessness, which hit close to home for me. Regardless of his feelings, he says something in the film that I feel is a true testament to his character. Proceeding his triumph over Jin and responding to his opponent’s lack of understanding over this happening, Ip Man tells Jin that it is not about style, it is about you. In the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments contain reminders of the dangers of being caught up in the manner in which you worship God. God wants what is on the inside, and if you concern yourself with that in a true relationship with God, the outside will take care of itself.
If you are in the mood for a good action flick, you can definitely do worse than Ip Man. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and now wish I had seen it sooner. It is mostly harmless too, except for the scenes where Ip Man takes out his frustration on a number of Japanese soldiers. There are some pretty gruesome moments there, and towards the end, so I would not recommend sitting the family down for this one. It is on Netflix for free, however, and it is worth a view.