Well Go Usa // 2008 // 106 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // September 10th, 2010
Behind every great martial artist lies a teacher.
Ip Man (Blu-ray), the story of the legendary Wing Chun martial arts master, eschews factual storytelling in favor of a Donnie Yen martial arts in-your-face rumble. The end result is entertainingly anachronistic.
In the renowned martial arts city of Fo Shan, the most respected martial art style is Wing Chun, a graceful grappling and striking style with an emphasis on deflection of force. People boast to being the best teacher and having the best style, but everyone knows the most acclaimed master of the craft is Ip Man (Donnie Yen). Kindly and wealthy, Ip Man would rather relax in his estate than fight -- especially when his wife is around -- but enjoys teaching his style to those wanting to learn. He dislikes violence and turns down challenges for sparring.
When the Japanese army invades during World War II, Fo Shan is razed, left a shell of its former glory. Its citizens are deposed and left in abject poverty. Ip Man and his family are forced from their palatial estate and scramble on the streets to survive, along with hundreds of others. The local Japanese commander is a martial arts fanatic, and believes the Japanese style is superior. He commissions a series of fights, rewarding bags of rice to the Chinese competitors, and each time Ip Man refuses to participate. When one of the young men is killed during the contest, Ip Man realizes the time has come to rise up for justice.
At its core, Ip Man is a pretty familiar martial arts film, with easily recognizable tropes and plot devices. You've got the freakishly talented-yet-humble martial arts master who would rather sit idle than beat people up, constantly turning down challengers looking to dethrone him. He's so good that he doesn't even need to throw a punch. Of course, situations beyond his control soon force the cool martial arts master into action -- but not before his inaction causes pain and suffering for all those around him. Oh, pathos! So bittersweet! Swap out early century China for the bleak frontier landscape of America, and you could have a cowboy western.
Loosely based on the life of Wing Chun master Ip Man, who would go on to teach a young pupil named Bruce Lee, this martial arts drama delivers satisfaction in the fisticuffs department. One should avoid watching Ip Man for an actual biography about the famed martial arts master, because the most you'll get are some esoteric platitudes and a loose collection of dates and places. Yes, the real-life Ip Man was in Fo Shan, and yes, the village was hard done by during the Japanese invasion. Everything else is pretty much creative license to set up sequence after sequence of Donnie Yen punching people in the face a billion times -- and he does exactly that.
From a nerdish martial arts perspective, it is nifty to see Wing Chun front and center in a fight film. A close-quarter martial art style renowned for its simplistic grace and emphasis on simultaneous attack and defense, it is far less showy than some of the flashier kung fu styles popularized in decades of martial art fight films. The trained eye will certainly see elements of it pop up in choreographed fight sequences, in everything from Bruce Lee films to The Matrix, but rarely do we see it in so pure and uninterrupted. It goes without saying that the fight sequences are impressive, if slightly preposterous. The film strives for realism, but there is plenty enough wire work and Shaw Brothers-style physics at work here. Still, it's hard to beat Donnie Yen fighting ten Japanese karate black belts at once; a frenetic and furious choreograph of surprising brutality and ferocity. That scene alone is worth the price of DVD admission for fight fans.
Ip Man makes excellent use of its modestly large budget with spectacular set design, an often overlooked element in this kind of film. The village of Fo Shan is brought to life in vivid detail, teeming with color, noises, and milling extras, a martial arts village at the height of its prowess. After the occupation, the city transmogrifies into the beach at the invasion of Normandy, a burned-out shell. Everything in the film, from the costume design to the cinematography looks quality -- the film has a superb visual style. Even the acting is pretty good. Donnie Yen is a superstar in his own right, a man who needs little introduction to genre fans. He is in top form here, but not just in fighting, bringing a gentle, effortless grace to the role of Ip Man. He sells the tortured conflicted martial arts master, a wealthy aristocrat unwilling to resort to violence even as the world around him descends into chaos. In terms of other performances worth noting, a secondary character played by Ka Tung Lam helps round out the dramatic angst as an ambitious yet conflicted translator who aids the Japanese to save his own skin.
Suffice it to say, Ip Man is a much better martial arts film than a historical biopic. Since it is common knowledge that the real-life Ip Man would eventually tutor a young Bruce Lee, there isn't much in the way of dramatic tension, with this being the first in a series of films and all. It is certainly ironic that a biopic about a martial arts master should appeal less to history buffs and fans of the great teacher, and more to random people off the street looking for a good martial arts film. In a sense, you can't blame the film for trying to spice things up a little. Ip Man was a great fellow, but the real Ip Man didn't live quite so exciting an existence, or fly through the air with such feline grace, or kick people fifty feet across a room. Ip Man is a preposterous biopic, but a top-notch brawler. As long as you're okay with that, you'll enjoy the film.
The 1080p transfer is smooth, clean and rather plain, with a deliberate subdued and desaturated presentation that gets even more bleak and gray once the second act of the film starts up. Black levels are acceptable to good and whites are crisp and bright. There is little in the way of edge issues or artifacts detectable on the whole, but do occasionally pop up in some fast-paced sequences -- usually the fighting. It is not quite on par with the top Hollywood high-definition treatments, but certainly a noticeable improvement from standard-definition DVD quality.
Audio comes in DTS-HD Master Audio across the board; take your pick between English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. The film suffers from excessive balance issues in all three presentations -- fight sequences break out and punch holes through your subwoofer and speakers, but turn the volume down, and you can't hear the dialogue. The action is loud and in-your-face, filling up all five channels with excellent environmental detail and placement. The snap of the sleeve fabric as a punch flies past sounds more like a jet engine than a piece of fabric, but it's hard to argue with the adrenaline rush.
The feature disc contains a 20-minute making-of featurette, three minutes of deleted scenes, and theatrical trailers, all in HD. A second DVD disc contains the standard-definition supplements, including 70 minutes of interviews with the director and cast members, a 5-minute shooting diary, and 6 minutes of behind-the-set footage. All told, this is a very strong offering of supplemental material, sure to please fans.
A martial arts action film wrapped around an embellished historical biopic, Ip Man is somewhat at odds with its own existence. If you think attention to historical detail is a criterion for cinematic satisfaction in a period piece drama, best stay clear of this one. Everyone else can stay to enjoy the awesome fight sequences, the solid performance by Donnie Yen and some great set designs.
Come for the fight sequences, stay for the historical inaccuracies! Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go Usa
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Cantonese)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Mandarin)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site