[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
March 2023 is a pretty big month for action fans. The long-awaited release of John Wick: Chapter 4 is finally here and people are now able to see how Mr. Wick continues to cut a path of vengeance on those that wronged him. While I haven’t seen it yet (I’m writing this before Friday, obviously), one thing I’m excited about is the inclusion of Donnie Yen in the cast.
I’ve spoken about a couple of films that Donnie Yen has been in previously for this column. While Wing Chun and Hero don’t put him as the main protagonist, they do showcase a specific part of his talents that have managed to make him one of the most recognized Asian action stars in the world. His path to success took longer than Jackie Chan, but he now has a Star Wars film to his name and even presented an award at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony.
So I wanted to celebrate his John Wick role by talking about what might just be his most iconic and career-defining performance: Ip Man. While I’m going to celebrate the man as an actor, I would be remiss to not mention that Yen is also a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and is a noted Chinese patriot, having basically turned his back on Hong Kong. He even referred to the protests in Hong Kong as riots and has since renounced his US citizenship (Yen’s family moved to the US when he was 11 and he grew up in Boston). In some ways, it colors his performance here in a different light.
Ip Man is the “story” of legendary martial arts figure Ip Man, one of the most famous practitioners of Wing Chun in history. Among Ip Man’s prestigious honors are helping to bring awareness of Chinese martial arts to the world and even training other legendary figures such as Bruce Lee. A grandmaster at the age of 20, his legacy was cemented long before the second Sino-Japanese war broke out and tore his hometown of Foshan asunder.
None of that really comes up in Yen’s film. Directed by Wilson Yip -who had helped redefine modern Hong Kong action films with SPL just a few years prior-, Ip Man is more a film about honoring the legacy of its titular character than about being historically accurate. The movie starts in 1935 when Foshan is prospering as a central hub of martial arts in China. Ip Man (Donnie Yen) accepts a friendly match from Master Liu (Chen Zhihui) so that the two can practice their skills. After defeating him and promising not to tell anyone, an onlooker named Yuan (Wong You-nam) spreads the news that Liu lost and it causes some issues.
Right out of the gate, Ip Man establishes that its protagonist is a very noble person. Ip is having lunch with his friend Chow Ching-chuen (Simon Yam) discussing a potential business deal and most of the town storms into the restaurant demanding he answers for Yuan’s claims. Instead of flying off the handle or insulting Liu’s integrity, Ip calmly explains that he is preoccupied and gets everyone to leave without much fuss. He is the very ideal of the Confucian man, something that Jet Li embodied with his depiction of Wong Fei Hung in Once Upon a Time in China.
From there, the film starts to resemble a classic Kung Fu film. A group of Northern Chinese martial artists stroll into Foshan looking to make a name for themselves. Headed by a man named Jin Shanzhao (Fan Siu-wong), this group defeats pretty much every master in town safe for Ip. When they stroll into his home and demand a match, Ip defers the choice to his wife Cheung Wing-sing (Lynn Hung). The two had a bit of a spat earlier where she demanded Ip stop practicing martial arts as she believed it had no purpose in their peaceful time.
Long story short, Ip defeats Jin and the town is happy. With Foshan’s honor restored, everyone sets out to continue living their lives in peace. Sadly, the start of the Second Sino-Japanese rolls over China and plunges most of the country into destitution. The transition is not handled elegantly at all with a text scroll shifting things a few years into the future, but I also believe that might be the point. War is never an elegant thing and the change is so sudden that life can be happy and healthy one day, then miserable and broken the next.
This is where Ip Man makes the biggest break from reality. Ip and his family are forced to live in a rundown apartment under Japanese control while struggling to make ends meet. When their food situation becomes particularly dire, Ip goes out in search of a job and winds up shoveling coal. Here, he runs into Lin (Xing Yu), the brother of Yuan, and an old friend of Ip’s. Having believed he would never see his old friends again, Ip is put at ease until officer Li Chiu (Gordon Lam) walks into the coal mine with a request. Having become a Japanese interpreter, he comes with a challenge for any potential martial artists: if they can defeat the Japanese in a sparring match, they’ll be given a bag of rice to take home.
Lin accepts and is taken to an underground fighting ring. While I can’t say for certain if something like this existed or not, it very clearly is taking inspiration from Bruce Lee’s famous scene in Fist of Fury. To sum this up faster and get to a more in-depth explanation, Lin tries to take out the Japanese general and winds up dying. When Ip asks for him the next day, he goes to the underground arena and watches as Mr. Liu gets shot. From there, he proceeds to beat down 10 men at once.
What’s interesting about Yen’s version of Ip Man is that he is essentially playing Superman. I got that idea from the YouTube channel Accented Cinema, but it is a very apt comparison. While Ip suffers setbacks due to the war and even loses a considerable amount of wealth and most of his friends, Ip is basically indestructible in this movie. In the few fights that we’ve seen up to this point in the film, Ip hasn’t even been touched. When facing off against 10 men at once, you’d think he would suffer at least one attack, but he emerges from the battle unscathed.
The point of this scene isn’t to show Ip’s dominance, however. At the beginning of the film, a lot of emphasis is put on how ridiculous and silly these grown men are for fighting all of the time. Peace has been so prevalent throughout China that it’s almost stupid to be practicing self-defense. Much like the Sun Tsu quote, though, Ip Man saw beyond the exterior of martial arts and into what it really meant.
While Ip handily defeats the 10 men here and wins the fight, he realizes that he has already lost the war. In an effort not to flaunt his prowess, Ip Man never took on students back in Foshan. In his mind, there were other schools where people could learn to “fight” if they so choose. It wasn’t until this moment during the war that Ip realizes how much he has failed his country.
That is exactly the type of conflict that makes Superman interesting. You can’t rely on villains to physically hurt Superman because he is invulnerable. While Ip Man isn’t actually a god, the film builds him up as untouchable so it can demonstrate the power of martial arts. Martial arts can take you from being merely angry or scared or vulnerable and give you power over yourself. With that power, you will take on the form of something indestructible, even if your physical form will eventually falter.
This moment sparks a change in the man that makes him open up more to teaching. When his friend Chow falls into trouble at his cotton mill, Ip understands that he can’t be there all the time to save these people. What he can do, however, is teach them the skills they need to save themselves. It leads into a beautiful training sequence and then a knockout battle with Jin’s men later on. While the plot is certainly muddied by basically everyone returning at one point or another, Ip Man certainly lays on the patriotism in dramatic fashion.
Towards the end of the film, the Japanese general comes looking for Ip and forces him to turn himself over to the Japanese army. While he wants Ip to teach Kung Fu to his forces, Ip wants to prove that the Chinese are not weak men. Ip Man borrows heavily from not only Bruce Lee’s movies but also Jet Li’s Fearless here. The finale, in fact, looks like it was filmed on the same set as Fearless and results in practically the same outcome.
That doesn’t render Ip Man as a poor film or even an imitation. At the time, Ip Man felt like a glorious return to the style of Hong Kong filmmaking that had been abandoned in the late 90s. 15 years later, we can look back at the influence this film had on action cinema. Not only did Wing Chun become more prevalent in even Hollywood films, but a cottage industry around the idea of Ip Man sprung up basically overnight. Even acclaimed director Wong Kar Wai took a stab at Ip’s life with The Grandmaster, though it suffered through production hell long before Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip had conceived their version.
Much like how Bruce Lee’s death caused a wave of Brucesploitation films, the success of Ip Man created what could be described as Ipsploitation. You not only have the main series consisting of four films and a spin-off, but a film titled The Legend is Born: Ip Man, a semi-sequel called Ip Man: The Final Fight, and a streaming-only movie named Ip Man: Kung Fu Master. Stranger still, Sammo Hung would provide action choreography for the first movie, star in one of the Ipsploitation films, then have a deuteragonist role in Ip Man 2.
So for those who have just watched John Wick: Chapter 4 and are looking for more Donnie Yen action, one of the best places to start is with Ip Man. The film holds up well even in the wake of its imitators and is easily the role that has come to define what Yen is about. It sucks that his actual character isn’t as strong as Ip, but then we’re all only human. Hopefully, Yen comes back around and realizes the error of his ways.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.