Ip Man starring Donnie Yen and directed by Wilson Yip is one of the best martial arts films of the last 10 years. It cemented Yen’s reputation as a major star, and it began a craze for Yip Man films. Wong Kar-Wai has been trying to make his own Yip Man film, The Grandmaster, for years. (Pre-production on that had technically begun before Ip Man got off the ground.) A recent mini-series about Yip Man aired on Chinese TV. Yen and Yip have also talked about a second sequel to Ip Man — Ip Man 3D.
Amid all this came director Herman Yau’s 2010 film The Legend Is Born: Ip Man. The movie is a heavily fictionalized version of Yip Man’s early life starring Dennis To as the title character. In a lot of ways it plays out like an old-fashioned martial arts movie, an old-fashioned biopic, and mostly like an old-fashioned melodrama.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
The Legend Is Born: Ip Man (Young Ip Man | Ye Wen Qian Zhuan | 葉問前傳)
Director: Herman Yau
Country: China (Hong Kong)
Release Date: June 24, 2010 (China)
One of the things that immediately struck me about The Legend is Born is the number of actors in it who appeared in the Yen/Yip Ip Man movies. Sammo Hung (who was in Ip Man 2) plays the master of the Wing Chun martial arts school, with Yuen Biao as his disciple/protege. Dennis To was in both Ip Man and Ip Man 2. The same goes for Louis Fan (star of the cult masterpiece Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky); in The Legend is Born, Fan is Ip Tin-chi, Yip Man’s brother in arms, though he played the Northern bandit in the Yen movies. Even Yip Man’s dad, actor Chen Zhihui, had a part in that first Donnie Yen film. (I also noticed a brief role for Jiao Xu, the young star of Starry Starry Night, one of my favorite movies at last year’s New York Asian Film Festival.)
Part of me wonders if some of this casting was a wink to the audience, though it may have been based more on klout and ability. I think the film does a bit of martial arts fan service since its opening fight involves Hung and Biao duking it out with blindfolds on. The two actors can still move well, which makes me wish they’d do a reunion film with Jackie Chan. Yau also offers some fan service with a cameo appearance by Ip Chun, the real-life son of Yip Man, who gets to shine in a fight scene against the much younger To.
The Legend Is Born zips through Yip Man’s teenage years and young adulthood in the early 1900s. He and Ip Tin-chi are brought up learning Wing Chun, and they make fast friends with a young girl at the school named Li Mei Wai (portrayed as an adult by Rose Chan). Mei loves Yip Man, who doesn’t love her back; Ip Tin-chi loves Mei but she just sort of tolerates him. The love triangle becomes a kind of love quadrangle once Yip Man leaves for Hong Kong and meets Cheung Wing-shing (Huang Yi). She’s the aristocratic daughter of the Lieutenant Governor, and of course her dad doesn’t want his own flesh and blood dating that kung-fu riffraff.
I mentioned that the film plays like an old-fashioned biopic, and it became most apparent to me in the scene where Yip Man and Cheung Wing-shing first meet. They’re both in an outdoor market and happen upon a gramophone. They lock eyes and the film makes it seem like they’re destined to be together. As we hop from event to event and from year to year, bits of Yip Man’s life fall into place neatly and purposefully, without the loose ends of real life. I picture the screenplay written with bullet points instead of paragraph breaks. Each scene is about shoving the plot ahead or a life lesson learned, whether it’s a new way to do Wing Chun or a declaration of personal philosophy, which in this film veers equally at nationalism (impossible to avoid when it comes to Chinese/Japanese relations in this period) and proto-globalization.
The Legend is Born features a fight every 8-10 minutes, which is why it’s reminiscent of an old-fashioned martial arts film. Yip Man stops a con man and they fight. Yip Man plays field hockey and it leads to a fight. Yip Man returns to Wing Chun school and there’s a fight as a demonstration of what he learned. Yip Man has dinner and kapow. There’s also a masochistic training sequence/montage that feels like it’s straight out of a classic late 70s/early 80s period martial arts film. Instead of Wong Fei-Hung, Butcher Wing, or Beggar So, it’s Yip Man, who seems like he’s joining those other historical figures as a new cinematic folk hero. Like the martial arts films of old, there’s also rigid concern for the purity of a martial arts school’s ways, though the hero must combine skills and adapt rather than remain conservative in order to win in the end.
The fights aren’t as mind-blowing as the ones in the Donnie Yen films. It’s impossible not to compare them since the bar is so high — The Legend Is Born deals in volume since it can’t top Ip Man with innovation or intensity. I think this may simply be because Yen brings a physicality and a knowledge of action direction that isn’t on display here. Even though veteran director Sammo Hung appears in the film, he wasn’t in charge of fight choreography. That role fell to another veteran, Tony Leung Siu-Hung (another Ip Man alum), who does a more than serviceable job. Dennis To is similarly good as a fighter. He moves well, and I want to see a few more of his movies to peg the personality of his body language. Yuen Biao has a way of doing things that’s all his own in the same way that there’s a unique fighting style for Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Bruce Lee, and Donnie Yen; a few more movies and I may figure out what To’s up to.
I’ll give The Legend is Born credit on this point: one of the flaws of Ip Man was that Donnie Yen was invincible and no one really posed a threat to him; and one of the biggest flaws of Ip Man 2 was that the boxer he faces in the end is an artificial threat who is merely stronger and not a better or more skillful fighter. (The inevitable solution for the Ip Man 2 fight is something that the character would have thought of immediately in the first Ip Man.) The Legend Is Born does at least force Yip Man to be better than his opponents. Combining fighting styles and surpassing your teachers is a hallmark of the classic martial arts film, and it’s something that seems to be missing a lot in the martial arts movies of today.
Blending the old-fashioned biopic and the old-school martial arts movie is quaint. Think Drunken Master mixed with The Life of Emile Zola in that respect. And yet The Legend Is Born ultimately feels thin and hokey. It’s not a particularly deep or realistic portrayal of the young Yip Man, and it’s garnished with lots of artificial dramatic hubbub. Not only is there a bland love story, but it’s a film with double crosses, political intrigues, sibling rivalries, and betrayals. By the end, it’s like a Douglas Sirk kung-fu movie without the Sirk irony. We get an incredibly dark resolution followed by a chipper closing scene, which is such a peculiar note to end on.
This weekend I’ll be reviewing Ip Man: The Final Fight, Yau’s follow-up to this film which focuses on the older Yip Man as played by the venerable Anthony Wong. We’ll see how this film functions as a precursor/companion piece. But taken on its own, The Legend is Born is so brisk and light, almost to a fault, and feels more like reading the CliffsNotes than the novel. As a portrait of the cinematic idea of Yip Man, it works and entertains from quick scene to quick scene. It’s a nice chopsocky throwback, but it’s also shaky as a coherent biopic. Maybe to enjoy it fully, it shouldn’t be considered the latter.
[The Legend Is Born: Ip Man will screen on Saturday, June 29th. Director Herman Yau will be in attendance. For tickets and more information, click here.]