Ip Man (2008)

Dir. Wilson Yip, 106 min., on Netflix Instant

Ip Man tells the story of a Chinese martial arts master, and not the inventor of the Internet Protocol as I was let to believe.

Wow, rereading that first sentence, I sound like a Groupon ad copy writer. All stupidness aside, the film is about a martial artist before and during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Ip Man is a master of the fighting style known as Wing Chung (must fight Groupon style joke…argh…can’t hold back…as opposed to WANG CHUNG, GET IT, HAW HAW HAW HAW).

At first Ip Man (Donnie Yen) just enjoys the occasional bout with locals, but he eventually starts beating on a traveling group of renegade martial artists that roll into town and defeat every other skilled fighter. That whole sequence is essentially the first half of the film.

Once the Japanese show up, they start pitting soldiers (I assume they’re soldiers–it’s never fully explained) against former martial arts masters in town to prove once and for all that Japanese fighting styles are superior. There’s some buildup over the course of an hour or so, and a subplot that briefly reintroduces some pre-occupation characters, but most of it is window dressing for the final fight between Ip Man and the Japanese general.

In general, the martial arts in the film come off slightly fantastical. I like fighting films, but they are by no means my favorite type of film, so I can’t speak with too much authority on historical conventions. I know that samurai films typically have a fantastical element that has something to do with Japanese folklore, but in my experience, fighting films that focus on one particular style tend to be grounded in reality (the very notable exception I can recall is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)). This film doesn’t so much break the laws of physics as bend them in inexplicable ways: no one is flying from rooftop to rooftop, but there are several Matrix moments in the fight sequences.

The film is semi-biographical, which is a polite euphemism for lightly fictionalized, and what I like to call partially stuffed full of crap that attempts to make it more interesting and condense a person’s life history into a contiguous chain of events. Categorizations like that are always worthless anyway, as the film could have been 100% fictional and still worked just as well for anyone who didn’t know anything about this man’s life, a set of persons of which I am a part. If the film really was semi-biographical, the director might have eliminated one subplot which does practically nothing in terms of character development and spends 20 or so minutes as a setup for the film’s conclusion (if you watch or have watched the film, I am talking about the factory subplot).

Weak pacing really sabotages what would otherwise be a perfectly enjoyable film. This film reminded me a great deal of Fearless (2006), which was supposedly Jet Li’s final martial arts film, unless you count the seven he has made since then. The pacing in Fearless was superior in that the story had a superstructure that enabled the viewer to anticipate the redemptive arc. It’s backdrop as a semi-biographical also worked better in my opinion; this may have had to do with superior character development for the non titular character (which paradoxically leads to better development of the film’s subject).

In closing, the real test as I see it for a biopic is did I feel like I learned who the man or woman was by the end. In this case, I don’t feel like I understand any more about Ip Man than I could have gleaned from a quick scan of his Wikipedia page.