Dir: Wilson Yip
Star: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Lynn Hung, Fan Siu-wong
While a solid enough, old-school kung-fu action flick, this suffers mostly from characterization that is also equally old-school, with flawless heroes and villains who couldn’t be more obvious if they were wearing black hats. It’s very-loosely based on the story of martial-arts master Ip Man (Yen), who would later teach Bruce Lee. This concentrates on his early life in Foshan, a town famous for the number and ability of its fighting schools; Ip is the best, but prefers to stay out of the limelight as far as possible. That continues even when the Japanese invade China, and Ip’s comfortable life is destroyed, with him having to find work in a coal-mine.
Japanese General Miura organizes fights between his soldiers and the local martial artists: when one is killed for trying to take a bag of rice, Ip goes berserk and beats ten soldiers in a single match. Miura demands Ip train the soldiers with is skills: the local hero refuses, and instead challenges Miura to a one-on-one bout. Let’s be perfectly blunt: the fights are what make this, in particular a relatively-early one where Ip takes on a Northern master, who has been chewing up and spitting out the other Foshan teachers. It’s amazing to think that Yen turns fifty next month: he still clearly has it. Much less successful is… Well, just about everything between the fights.
As noted above, this is a film which is painted entirely in two colors of morality. Ip is painted as little less than a saint, whose only flaw is slight guilt about not spending enough time with his son. Meanwhile, the Japanese – rarely a nationality portrayed favourably in Chinese cinema – are similarly, one step short of twirling their moustaches while eating orphaned puppies. It plays fast and loose with the facts, to say the least, but then just tails off at the end with Ip heading off, injured and in a van: a quick epilogue recaps the next 35-odd years. Given its reputation, I confess some disappointment, and was looking for something with more depth. Still, if you’re looking for a fight, you’ve come to the right place.