Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Film Review : Ip Man (2008) -- Ip Man Delivers

Image Copyright Mandarin Films Ltd.
Three of the best Hong Kong martial arts films ever made depict stories of kung fu masters defending Chinese honor during a time of Japanese military occupation. Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury -- called The Chinese Connection in the United States -- is one of the films that helped secure Bruce Lee as a legitimate action star. Jet Li's Fist of Legend improved upon Lee's classic and proved that Jet Li was a martial artist who didn't operate in anyone's shadow. Li's Fearless took the tale back a generation into what is essentially the prequel story to Fist of Fury and Fist of Legend and created a powerful narrative of struggle against tyranny and the power of patriotism.

All of these films are classics in the genre. The story they present is a simple one. The Japanese have invaded the Chinese mainland and are oppressing the people of China. In order to further humiliate the Chinese people, the Japanese forces seek to prove that the Japanese Fist (Karate) is superior to the Chinese Fist (Kung Fu). They hope that doing so will break the spirit of the Chinese people.

Fist of Legend and Fist of Fury both begin with a student of the Jingwu school of martial arts returning home to find that his sifu has been murdered by the Japanese during one of these "honor duels." To make matters worse, the Japanese poisoned the sifu in order to guarantee the win. The student -- filled with the arrogance of his extraordinary skill and the power of his righteous indignation -- enters the Japanese enclave and gives them a quick "lesson" in the Chinese Fist. Things escalate from there.

In Fist of Fury, the Japanese are presented in a stereotypical and demeaning manner. Li's version tones down some of the racism and has Japanese characters who aren't mere two-dimensional villains. The Li version adds a cross-cultural romantic subplot that is one of the many improvements that film adds to the Lee version. Fearless, as a patriotic piece, represents other cultures in a more stereotypical light than Fist of Legend, but in a less offensive manner than Fist of Fury. Fearless, taking place before the action of the two "Fist" films, sets the tone of honor and national pride that makes the two "sequels" narratively possible.

All of these films feature a compelling drama and phenomenal displays of martial arts. Li's fights in Fist of Legend are some of the most compelling martial arts duels to date in film. Li's final battle rivals the end fights in Meals on Wheels and Drunken Master II. Watching the duels it becomes clear that the audience is watching more than a choreographed fight, they are watching Art. The aesthetics of the action are breathtaking. The brave use of wide shots during the action accentuate the beauty in a way that American films have yet to match -- primarily due to American cinema's over reliance on the close up during fight scenes. A static wide angle filming masters is a thing of beauty that shaky close angle shots will never match.

As great as these films are, they all lack one key dramatic component. None of the Li/Lee tales of Japanese oppression truly illustrate how devastating the occupation was to the Chinese people. This is where Donnie Yen's Ip Man takes the established formula of the Fist of genre and pulls it out of the "action film" ghetto and into high drama. Prior to Ip Man, I would have argued that Fist of Legend comes close with its romantic sub-plot, but after Ip Man there is truly no comparison when it comes to moving pathos.

Ip Man tells the tale of Yip Man a humble master of Wing Chun. Ip Man isn't filled with righteous indignation and he is completely lacking in arrogance. He is the antithesis, in many ways, of the able Chinese fighters in the Fist stories. He is a kind family man who is merely seeking to provide for his family and to live an honest life. But he is also a man who can only witness so much injustice before he must step forward to protect his community. When push comes to shove, it isn't the "honor of the Chinese Fist" for which Ip Man fights, it is for the honor of those who have been oppressed.

Donnie Yen's performance as Yip Man is deep and touching. When one watches a martial arts film one expects action, but one doesn't often expect to be given genuine pathos. Yen's substantial martial arts talents deliver on the action end, but his acting chops are proven as well. Yen manipulates the audiences heartstrings as ably as any actor in an "independent tragedy." The film, and Yen, are almost somber in their presentation. This is a film about resisting tyranny, and not a film about revenge. As such, the film gains an emotional power that would otherwise be lacking.

The film, like Fearless, is a highly patriotic film -- presenting the virtue of Chinese society against the tyranny of Japanese society. Like Fist of Legend it portrays a more complex Japanese occupier, though it does portray some negative stereotypes in its depiction of the Japanese political character. Ip Man also displays a more complex Chinese citizen than the past films in the genre. Ip Man's Chinese citizens act like the oppressed, taking actions that undermine the Chinese people and make things easier for the occupying Japanese. Bandits steal from hard working Chinese families instead of fighting the Japanese. Translators hand over Kung Fu masters, though the master's may end up shot if they are too successful against the Japanese, out of fear of punishment and a need to support family. There are no simple quislings in the story, but the oppressed act in ways that make the job of the oppressor easier.

It all makes for one of the most emotionally powerful martial arts films ever made. The action in the film is amazing -- as I have come to expect from Donnie Yen films -- but there is something special about this film that has nothing to do with the action and everything to do with the performance and direction.

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