Before watching the movie:
I have heard this series mentioned a lot as some kind of great work that doesn’t have to be discussed because everyone in the conversation has already seen it. I’ve seen the sequels pop up from time to time, but the original movie doesn’t show up as much.
I have to admit I read the title as if it was English until I decided to look up what it’s about. What does a man of Ip do? Ip Man (or Yip Man, or Ip Mun, depending on the transliteration) is the name of a famous martial artist. He trained Bruce Lee. This is (very loosely) based on his early life. Apparently the story is about him standing up to invading forces to defend his village solo, which is to say it concerns things that absolutely didn’t happen to him in the Second Sino-Japanese war.
I have the understanding that while this movie did not originally get released in the US, it, or at least its sequels, brought Donnie Yen to the attention of American film studios. I do not know any of the names of the other actors, but it looks like they actually cast Japanese actors as the Japanese characters, which I suppose a Chinese production is more likely to do if they have access to Japanese actors, because Chinese audiences are very familiar with the differences between Chinese and Japanese people, unlike many in the American audience.
After watching the movie:
In the 1930s, the town of Foshan was very prosperous and studying kung fu was an almost universal hobby. But while schools proliferate, Master Ip Man, wealthy enough to spend his entire day practicing the rare Wing Chun form and widely known to be an unmatched dueller, refuses to teach. Even so, his wife resents how much time he devotes to his craft and not to her and their son. When a gang of northern bullies come to Foshan intent on launching their own school by defeating every master in town, Master Ip initially refuses to fight, but between the bullies’ insistence and the town needing someone to restore their honor, he eventually accepts and puts the interlopers in their place. Soon, the Japanese invade China and Foshan’s way of life collapses. There are few people left in town and fewer jobs. The Japanese confiscate the Ip family’s home for their local headquarters and for the first time in his life, Ip Man must work to feed his family, eventually finding a coal mine run by a boss who prefers to give work to kung fu masters. It turns out that General Miura likes to bring his soldiers to the mine to train their karate against the kung fu masters in exchange for rice for the winners. When the colonel shoots a man who fought back to back matches and lost his second for taking the rice from his first, Ip requests to fight ten soldiers at once, and defeats them easily. The northern bullies return to Foshan, having become bandits, and raid Ip’s businessman friend’s cotton mill, showing Ip that in these difficult times, it’s irresponsible of him to refuse to teach Wing Chun, and begins training the mill workers to defend themselves. But General Miura is annoyed that the master who shamed ten of his best men hasn’t returned to duel more as instructed, and orders Ip Man found.
I felt conflicted watching this knowing that it was mostly fiction but not knowing what was and wasn’t, except that I’d already seen that “Ip Man experiencing hardship in the war” was an invention of the movie, which is kind of all of the movie. After I finished the movie I had to research what did and didn’t happen to get a better sense of how to take the story, which was made difficult by the fact that a lot of the most readily available accounts of who Ip Man was begin after the end of the movie. He did come from a wealthy family, he didn’t formally teach until he moved to Hong Kong, and he did reportedly refuse a request to train occupying Japanese soldiers. However, before and during the war he did some work as a policeman, and he didn’t escape to Hong Kong because he defied the Japanese, he left because the Communist Party wanted to seize his wealth, a fairly inconvenient truth for a modern Chinese production. I think the best way to read the story is that they’ve taken a beloved Grandmaster’s name and applied it to an allegory of the Spirit of China.
It’s often an interesting experience to completely step outside of your own cultural biases and view another culture’s comparable but completely different assumptions. The first thing I realized about the Japanese was that they were depicted as bloodthirsty, evil, ruthless, largely faceless, even the honorable ones aren’t fully trustworthy. This seems almost cartoonish even considering just how despicable the Japanese army was in China in the Second Sino-Japanese War, AKA the Asian theater of WWII that we don’t really talk about in the West. Then I realized they reminded me of Nazis because that’s pretty much exactly how we portray Nazis. Ip Man is lionized as a perfect pacifist Confucian when reports from people who knew the real person at the time characterized him as kind of belligerent when he was young. How many of our foundational figures have been sanitized to the point that people who knew them wouldn’t recognize our portrayals?
It’s pretty rare for a movie this recent to frame the fight scenes so that all of the action can be seen and understood clearly. I usually tune out of fight scenes because they tend to just be fast paced motion that doesn’t affect the story until there’s a final outcome. But especially since I was already having to pay more attention to the screen because the version I saw was in the original Chinese and Japanese dialogue, I was able to really key into what’s happening in the fights. They want you to see the work they’re putting in. The choreography has to communicate a lot of skill mismatches, so if I knew anything about the martial arts forms used, maybe I’d see the losers as hilariously less skilled, but as a totally uninitiated viewer, I was impressed with how well they illustrated character and story moments. The wide frames also make it easier to notice all the background fighters shuffling around to make the scene look more intense, but the main time I noticed that was in a one on many match so it almost made sense they would be shuffling to be ready for their opening.
This movie was riveting even in the relatively low stakes opening act. Even though it had almost nothing to do with the real person it’s supposedly telling the story of and probably should have taken his name off when they decided to do whatever made the story more exciting, the result was an exciting and inspiring story only undercut by the knowledge that it’s fiction masquerading as the truth.