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Posts Tagged ‘Lynn Hung’

Cinema is an international art form, of course, and as such most of its forms are, generally speaking, much of a muchness all around the world. Given that we currently live in a world which is dominated by western and especially American culture, it’s not really surprising that it’s Hollywood movies that influence those from elsewhere in the world, rather than vice versa, and that those rare genres which originated outside the Anglophone world tend not to translate well into the English-speaking idiom. No-one makes giant monster movies in quite the same way they do in Japan, for example (although to be fair this genre had its roots in American B-movies).

I’ve written in the past about the difference between American and Asian martial arts movies, too – although the key difference is really that in American cinema, the martial arts action movie is a (usually fairly disreputable) genre in its own right, largely comprising undistinguished movies starring bad actors. Not all of the Asian action stars are necessarily much better, of course, but what seems to me to be the case is that in Asian movies the martial arts content is just one element of the production – they make martial arts comedies, or martial arts thrillers, or martial arts romances, and so on. Even the martial arts historical bio-pic, as in Ip Man, directed by Wilson Yip, and starring Donnie Yen.

Everyone knows of ‘I liked this band before they were famous’ syndrome, and with Donnie Yen recently coming to prominence to a mass international audience for the first time following his winning turn in the last stellar conflict franchise film (the first man to bring kung fu to a galaxy far, far away), it would obviously be a bit pompous of me to point out that I’ve been singing Donnie Yen’s praises for over ten years – I would’ve sworn I said something nice about his fight choreography and cameo in Blade 2, but apparently not. Needless to say, Yen’s star seems to be waxing at present, and this movie shows why.

Here I suppose we are in the realm of the bio-pic based on the life of someone who is very obscure as far as most people are concerned. Ip Man’s fame rests on his role in the history of martial arts, in particular the Wing Chun style of kung fu. Perhaps more prosaically, he is also notable as the martial arts teacher of Bruce Lee, a fact which the movie draws attention to (even on its own poster). Quite how close to reality the film actually gets is another matter, of course.

The first act of the film is set in Foshan, a noted centre of martial arts culture, in the mid 1930s. Ip Man (Yen) doesn’t run his own school as the story starts, largely (one surmises) because Mrs Ip (Lynn Hung) is rather disapproving, and so he is content to live the life of a relatively affluent gentleman. Needless to say, he is a phenomenally gifted and skilled fighter, and events do keep transpiring that force him to fight. (Other masters insist on sparring with him, something he’s much too polite to refuse, rough out-of-towners must be taught a lesson for the honour of Foshan’s kung fu heritage, and so on.) This is all fairly genteel, as kung fu movies go, and actually genuinely funny in places – ‘Just try not to break anything,’ pouts Mrs Ip, as her husband prepares to do battle with a troublemaking ruffian (Fan Siu-wong) in the front parlour of their lovely home.

Then the story turns darker, as the Japanese invade China and Foshan is occupied by enemy forces. The Ips are forced out of their home and Ip Man has to seek work as a labourer. The general of the occupying Japanese army, Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), is a dedicated karate expert and determined to show the superiority of Japanese martial arts over the local kind. Brutal matches between local kung fu fighters and karate experts from the Japanese army ensue, with bags of rice for any Chinese who win, and a beating (frequently unto death) for any who lose. Needless to say this is not Ip Man’s kind of scene at all, but soon enough he realises that the honour of his city, not to mention China itself, requires he stand up and be counted…

The film is somewhat more thoughtful and less schlocky than it probably sounds, not least because this isn’t just another exercise in hyperkinetic butt-whupping but a film which seems to have things to say about Chinese national identity. I’m not a particular expert on the Chinese kung fu movie, but this isn’t the first film I’ve seen which touches on the subject of a foreign-occupied China in the early part of the 20th century, nor the first which equates the mastery of kung fu with the indomitable Chinese spirit. (Here, perhaps, is the key difference between American and Chinese kung fu movies – in a US film, martial arts are always inevitably something slightly foreign and exotic, whereas in a Chinese movie, they’re an expression of an intrinsic part of the local culture.)

Perhaps as a result, the film has that solemn and slightly over-reverent tone that is usually the enemy of good drama: you just know that Ip Man is going to be portrayed as a paragon of virtue throughout, and the struggle of the Chinese against the occupying Japanese is likewise not much afflicted by shades of grey (that said, Miura is a generally honourable guy – enemy scumbag duties are hived off to his sadistic second-in-command). You would think this wouldn’t leave Yen a lot to work with as an actor, but he actually does a pretty decent job of suggesting Ip Man, the man – always assuming he really was as decent, modest, unassuming, and patriotically honourable as the film suggests.

(To be perfectly honest, it does seem like this movie casts loose of the anchor of historical accuracy fairly early on and sails off into some highly fictitious waters for most of its duration – but if I’m going to watch a kung fu movie, I’d much rather watch one where Donnie Yen takes on ten karate experts simultaneously than one which strictly adheres to what actually happened.)

Needless to say, Yen is stunning in the fight sequences which regularly punctuate the film. Apparently he had to work hard to brush up on his Wing Chun for this particular movie (I understand his background is in Tai Chi and Tae Kwon Do), but – obviously – I can’t possibly comment as to how authentic the fight choreography in the film is (the choreography is courtesy of Sammo Hung). Yen makes it all look very easy, of course –  perhaps a bit too easy, for Ip Man’s legendary status means that he’s never going to be seriously challenged at any point in the story.

As a result the movie is less effective as a drama than it could be, but the fight sequences are superb and there are some decent performances too. I suspect the film-makers’ desire to say something rousing and patriotic about Chinese national identity and the responsibilities of being a good citizen are going to leave most international viewers quite cold, but Ip Man is a well-mounted, reasonably well-written movie, and well worth a look if you like people being kicked in against a vaguely historical backdrop – especially if it’s Donnie Yen doing the kicking.

 

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