Once in a while, a martial arts movie suddenly bursts forth from the veil of mystery that covers the Asian market into popularity in the western world. Good recent examples are the top-notch Indonesian movies The Raid; Redemption, and its sequel The Raid 2; Berandal. These movies were not just martial arts movies that highlighted a particular Indonesian fighting style, but were also first class action movies, among the best of the year.
Ip Man (also known as Yip Man), a movie from Hong Kong, also reached popularity in the western world, and just like the Raid movies it isn’t just a martial arts movie. It is also an historical movie, set in the 1930s in China when the Japanese invaded. It is also (very) loosely based on real events, as Ip Man was apparently a real figure.
The charismatic actor Donnie Yen plays Master Ip who has become a master in a new fighting style named Wing Chun. Ip has a private and simple life. He drinks tea, eats and practices. He tries to keep it all low key but word goes around that he is a great fighter. Rumor spreads all over the region and fighting masters from other fight schools come to search him out and challenge him. At one point, aggressive out-of-towners appear and defeat all the local masters until Ip chases them away.
Then, disaster happens. The Japanese invade China and Master Ip becomes homeless. He only knows how to fight, and that might save him and his countrymen. Before, the film is colorful and humoristic. After the invasion, the story becomes a lot grimmer, and the fighting more gruesome.
The movie makes no pretense to be anything else than a martial arts movie, really, but the plot gets meat on its bones through adding historical drama. The sets and locations are beautiful, and the directing is very solid. Scenes and dialogue flow easily and naturally and the story itself is actually a bit funny in the first half hour, to draw you in. The characters are very proud and expressive and that makes the movie quite entertaining, while Master Ip is of course calm and controlled.
The action is well choreographed and the camerawork is excellent. There is no shakey recording used that merely suggests an intense fight. Instead, the actors really do know how to move and the camera moves rather fast between good angles. The camerawork is dynamic without obscuring what is actually happening.
Verdict. It should be obvious that you have to like martial arts movies to see this one. If you do, or if you are not sure whether you like them, Ip Man is a very fine example with excellent directing, great locations set in 1930s China, and a simple-to-follow entertaining story.