Sunday, 10 January 2010

Grandmaster Ip Man (2008)

Compensating for something?

When I saw the title to this film I assumed it was about a corporate lawyer dealing with the vagaries of intellectual property legislation. Turns out it's about some kung fu guy. What a rip off. This is one of those big-budget period kung fu biopics and although I've never heard of the subject he was apparently the first guy to start openingly teaching Wing Chun kung fu. He also taught Bruce Lee. Twenty years ago it would probably be about Wong Fei Hung, but the combined runtime of Wong Fei Hung films probably surpasses his lifetime several times over, so they've had to resort to other historical figures.

Too often the heroes in action movies are complete assholes, especially these days where they are usually amoral career criminals (see: Statham, Jason). Kung fu masters like Ip Man, on the other hand, are unfailingly polite and righteous. Okay, sometimes they use that politeness a little facetiously (like when a rival martial artist challenges him to duel, loses terribly and is then thanked for holding back) but you know they are always going to treat their opponent with respect (like Ip Man not telling anyone about his rival's humiliating defeat). They are the action movie protagonists you would take home to see your mother.

He's also surprisingly progressive about gender equality. When a bunch of cocky Northerners roll into town and start beating up all the local kung fu masters, Ip Man refuses to accept their challenge until his wife gives him her blessing. His wooden dummy even has a sign on it saying "the wife is the boss". There is a subplot of about Ip Man neglecting his wife and son due to his kung fu training, but by the end of the film his wife realises that kung fu is awesome and she should support him. This is handy because I would much rather watch Ip Man fighting people rather than sitting around with his wife and son, even though she's pretty hot.

In 1936 the Japanese show up and turf Ip Man and his family onto the street. Ip Man, never having worked a day in his life, is forced to take up a job shovelling coal along with all the other displaced kung fu masters. They've all given up on martial arts as outdated and useless, until General Miura (Hiroyushi Ikeuchi) starts rounding them all up to fight in private matches against Japanese karate experts. Ip Man refuses to fight at first as he's too busy providing for his family, but then he is inspired when one off his fellow martial artists is murdered by the Japanese after a match. Ip Man takes his winnings (a small bag of rice) to his widow, but he doesn't even wash the blood off first. Poetic maybe, but surprisingly insensitive.

Ip Man also uses his kung fu to teach some factory workers how to fight back against people who try to exploit them (those cocky Northerners from earlier, now turned to thievery). What I like is that Ip Man's training doesn't instantly turn them into fighting machines. They kind of suck actually. What it does do is give them is the confidence to stand up to the gangsters next time they try to shake them down, or at least for long enough for Ip Man to show up and start kicking ass. Probably a good thing he showed up too, since the gangsters pull out a bunch of hatchets. Things could've gotten pretty messy. Also, there's a pretty cool scene where he defends against two attackers by using a long wooden pole.

As a martial artist, Ip Man is untouchable. The bad guys can have axes, swords, even guns. Doesn't matter. Bring it on, motherfucker. His trademark move is to knock the guy to the ground and them whale on him with a flurry of rapid-fire punches. Even the final battle is one sided to almost Seagalian proportions, and ends with Ip Man pounding on Miura like he's a wooden practice dummy. All of the fights are choreographed by Sammo Hung, so of course they excellent, with a wide variety of weapons and different styles of martial arts. Donnie Yen did a lot of Wing Chun training to prepare for the role, and it shows. Probably his best acting performace too, which is great to see since I always thought he had what it takes to be a leading man.

This has a lot in common with other kung fu period films like Once Upon a Time in China or Fearless, but what it mostly reminds me of is Fist of Legend. It's set during the same period of Chinese history, and it's similarly based around the Japanese occupation and the downtrodden Chinese using kung fu as a unifying force and a source of fierce national pride. The fights probably aren't as good as that one but everything else is much better. Sometimes they lay on the melodrama a little thick, but it's good enough that it would seem like a real movie even if it wasn't full of awesome fight scenes. Although then I probably wouldn't have watched it.

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