Directed by: Wilson Yip || Produced by: Raymond Wong
Screenplay by: Edmond Wong, Chan Tai-lee || Starring: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Lynn Hung, Gordon Lam, Fan Siu-wong, Xing Yu, Chen Zhihui, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Tenma Shibuya
Music by: Kenji Kawai || Cinematography: O Sing-Pui || Edited by: Cheung Ka-fai || Country: Hong Kong, China || Language: Cantonese
Running Time: 108 minutes
I’ve mentioned before how, despite my self-proclaimed status as an action film enthusiast, I’m not the biggest fan of Hong Kong action cinema made famous throughout the 1970s-1990s. Other than the gunplay extravaganzas of John Woo (e.g. The Killer , Hard-Boiled ) from the same period and the later crime dramas of Johnnie To (e.g. Election [2005-2006], Mad Detective , Drug War ), most genre cinema native to the famous Cantonese island city has left me cold, its kung fu films most of all. Most Chinese films of any language, from any region, centered around martial arts feel corny, dated, and overchoreographed besides the action-comedy of Jackie Chan, their set-pieces akin to dancing that somewhat resembles fighting rather than the reverse (see also the backflip porn from the Star Wars prequels [1999, 2002, 2005]); when we get to the mystical swordplay and wire-fu of wuxia is when I lose interest entirely.
Spiritual successors to older generations of Hong Kong action include the many collaborations between filmmaker Wilson Yip and popular action star Donnie Yen, such as Sha Po Lang (2005) and the Ip Man (2008, 2010, 2015, 2019) series. The title character of the latter property is without a doubt Yen’s most recognizable role, and is the character most Western cinephiles associate with him when he stars in Hollywood movies like Rogue One (2016) or John Wick 4 (2023). My overall assessment of the original 2008 film isn’t too different from Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster (2013), about the same historical figure, despite Yen’s on-screen charisma, because it combines my general disinterest in disorganized, poorly structured biopics with unrealistic kung fu action sequences that don’t progress their greater story.
Let’s give the film credit where it’s due: The much ballyhooed fight sequences are physically impressive despite their over-the-top nature and particular set-pieces have some emotional hook to them, such as when Yen beats up ten guys to prove a point after witnessing the summary execution of an old colleague (Chen Zhihui). Yen himself, though his fictionalized characterization of the real Wing Chun practitioner is kind of a wet noodle, is so charming in front of the camera you can’t help but relate to him on a human level, and his chemistry with his diegetic wife (Lynn Hung) and son (uncredited) is cute. The physical backdrops of 1930s Foshan are further convincing and do much to sell the period setting before and after the Imperial Japanese invasion of the 2nd Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). The Japanese villains, while straightforward bad guys, are portrayed realistically instead of as cartoon stereotypes (for the opposite, see Dhoom 3  or RRR ), which is surprising given the touchy historical subject-matter.
Everything else reads kind of bland and disconnected, though. While I also did not care for Wong Kar-Wai’s take on the same Ip Man figure, that film at least had a clear narrative structure where most sequences fed organically into the next, including the flowery combat scenes. Ip Man, on the other hand, feels like three separate short stories mashed together into a feature film. The first act introduces Yen as the eponymous lead and has him duel a series of forgettable supporting characters despite his general disinterest in them, teaching martial arts, or showing off. Act Two then abruptly shifts to the aforementioned Japanese invasion where most everything established in Act One either doesn’t come into play or matter’s little to the rest of the plot. Act Three connects somewhat with the 2nd in that a mild rivalry between Yen and Japanese officer Hiroyuki Ikeuchi concludes in a formal match between the two, but this storyline is interrupted multiple times by a subplot involving a gang of hoodlums led by Fan Siu-wong that doesn’t go anywhere.
To that end, Ip Man’s fight sequences — the supposed main selling points of the film — remind me of the clunky, start-and-stop rhythm of Xtreme (2021) in terms of pacing and narrative progression. An action movie is a story told through action, and where Ip Man does contain a fair amount of fight choreography and memorable stunts, these fights don’t inform much about the characters or advance the plot. Part of this is related to the aforementioned compartmentalized screenplay, which has not one beginning, middle, and end, but three; but this disconnect is also a function of these fight sequences being little more than superfluous eye-candy with little tension or escalating narrative stakes. Yen is never in any danger in any fight (I think he eats one head-kick in his final match with Hiroyuki), and therefore his borderline invincibility makes those fights boring.
As different stylistically as Wilson Yip’s Ip Man ’08 is from, say, 2013’s Grandmaster, they’re dull in similar, predictable ways characteristic of lesser Hong Kong action cinema. I feel like these sorts of movies are the pretentious Eastern martial arts equivalent of pompous Hollywood blockbusters that focus only on special FX and put no effort into how their set-pieces actually drive their story. As well choreographed, stylish, and elaborate as its set-pieces are, Ip Man’s action sequences grow meaningless by the end because they don’t matter that much. George Lucas once noted that a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing, to which I would add that an action scene without narrative context is, too.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Filmmaking is in large part about style over substance, so films don’t need complex, multilayered narratives as their foundation. They do need a story of some kind, however, and Ip Man’s style is largely superfluous relative to its characters, story structure, and dialogue.
— However… Donnie Yen is a likable performer no matter the scene, and the production values of the Sino-Japanese War backdrop are memorable, as is the kung fu choreography. The movie isn’t lazy with its villainy.
—> ON THE FENCE
? Why did Simon Yam bring Yen’s wife and child to Yen’s fight against Hiroyuki, where they all could’ve been captured and thrown into internment camps?
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