Ip Man begins in pre-WWII China before the Japanese invasion began (culminating n incidents such as the Rape of Nanking and other crimes against humanity committed by ruthless and intoxicated Japanese soldiers). Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is widely acknowledged to be the finest martial arts master in all of Foshan. He lives with his wife (Chinese model and actress Lynn Hung) and son in a virtual mansion. People lavish him with gifts for his ability to teach them humility and to protect them. The younger citizens are in awe of his ability to defeat their masters and everyone desires to train with him. Ip Man is always reluctant to offer his services as a master because he wishes to have as little interference in his family life as possible and because he believes martial arts (he is most famous for having introduced Wing Chun) are meant for the preservation and not the destruction of life.
Circumstances change when suddenly and ominously several vicious martial artists arrive in Foshan seeking competition and to dominate its people. Throughout the day their leader demolishes every master in town save one, Ip Man. After hearing the dismayed crowds clamor for their hero’s help in defeating this new menace, the gang leader storms the confines of Ip Man’s fine home. Normally his wife hates how much of a distraction his fighting has been to their family’s harmony but in this case seeing the disrespect shown by the home invaders, she implores her husband to kick his ass. The suspense is at a fever pitch as we have seen the newcomer run rough shod over the other masters like they are weaklings. We fear for Ip Man’s safety and for the safety of his wife and son. Much to my surprise and to the surprise of the challenger, Ip Man makes mince meat out of him without breaking a sweat. It is in this instance we find out how special he really is. He seems undefeatable and unbothered by any boasting from his opponent. After disposing of the cracking wise braggart, a new twist changes everything. Days after giving his entire fortune to his brother in need to continue running a local factory and employing Foshan’s citizens, the second Sino-Japanese War breaks out and Foshan becomes a heavy casualty of the war.
As the timeline advances we are privy to the grim scene of Foshan, a small and undefended Chinese town whose citizens are forced to live in squalor and deprivation under Japanese tyrannical rule. Statistically speaking, only 70,000 of its former 300,000 citizens have survived the occupation, Ip Man and his family are among them. We learn that the Grand Master has hocked all family possessions for meager quantities of rice to feed his family. He often relies on his inner calm to bear with starvation so that others may eat and endure. Eventually he needs to find a job. Given his nature to not accept gifts or retributive payments of any kind, he refuses partial ownership of the mill and instead chooses to shovel gravel. At the gravel pit he finds his former friends as most masters are employed there. Apparently the Japanese occupying general loves to spar with the local masters to sharpen his skills. In return the masters receive tiny satchels of rice, provided they prove victorious.
When Ip Man’s friend disappears and is rumored to have been killed in cold blood by General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) and his adjutants, Ip Man decides to volunteer to fight. The translator for the general is the former chief of police and one of his friends Li Zhao (Ka Tung Lam). Before volunteering, Ip Man witnesses another friend and master executed senselessly. The master’s blood spurts onto his bag of rice. This prompts Ip Man to challenge ten Japanese soldiers to fight him at once. He decimates them with ease and this time he applies deadly force. This is not like his prior drills and sparring sessions. This is in cold-blood and out of revenge. Having won ten bags of rice, Ip Man abandons them all for the blood-soaked satchel won by his murdered friend.
Ip Man is instructed by Li Zhao after this incident to keep a low profile or face the consequences of the general and his entourage of barbarians. In the midst of eking out a living for his starving family, Ip Man continues to face opposition in the fiercest of forms. The former hooligans that had invaded his home and challenged him have returned to terrorize Foshan’s citizens working at the mill. To make matters worse, the general has challenged him to a duel in public. I would be committing a crime were I to reveal how this movie ends. I will say that Ip Man proves to be a symbol for everything Chinese martial arts stood for and continue to stand for today.
Ip Man is not just a martial arts film, it also fits nicely under the category of Human Interest stories. Although the film has been largely adapted from the true events that occurred during the occupation, the concept remains true. Ip Man was a cultural hero and an inspiration to the downtrodden and the starving. People often need heroes and inspiration to survive gruesome circumstances. Ip Man was that hero for the Chinese people of Foshan. This film is beautifully choreographed by Sammo Hung. Chinese choreography is much more vivid than anything done by American studios. It gives the feeling of real violence and real danger. It looks and feels unpredictable and that makes all the difference in the quality and credence of a film. Ip Man is plain wonderful and I recommend it to anyone and to everybody.
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