The tone and purpose of the martial-arts biopic Ip Man is set in its opening minutes. In the early 1930s, a local master in the city of Foshan arrives at the doorstep of the title character (played by Donnie Yen), asking for a lesson in the discipline of wing chun. Ip demurs, saying he’s no teacher, but the master insists, so Ip invites him to dine with Ip’s wife and young child. They have a nice meal, like gentlemen, then set about the business of trying to kick each other’s ass.
Ip Man is based on the life of the man most famous for training Bruce Lee, though that chapter of his story is left out of this film. (It’s reportedly covered briefly in the recently released sequel.) Instead, director Wilson Yip and screenwriter Edmond Wong follow Ip from the ’30s to the mid-’40s, focusing primarily on his experiences during the second Sino-Japanese war. The first third of Ip Man shows Ip as a pillar of his community, lending money to those who need it and artfully parrying outsiders’ attempts to prove that the stories of his martial-arts prowess are exaggerated. (When a gang rolls into town demanding to fight before setting up their own school, Ip calmly says, “You don’t need to fight me. You just need a good location.”) Then the Japanese invade, and Ip is drafted into martial-arts tournaments where he humiliates the Japanese by defeating 10 men at once with his jackhammer blows. As he rallies his people to stand up for themselves, Ip Man becomes about how war pushes a peaceful man into action, but also how he tries to maintain his faith in what it means to be civilized.
As a slice of history, Ip Man is disappointingly simplistic. Yip, Wong, and Yen never develop any real tension between Ip’s true story and the exaggerated myth-making of a martial-arts movie. But as an exaggerated, myth-making martial-arts movie, Ip Man is often thrilling. Sammo Hung’s fight choreography is clever and exciting, with sequences that have Ip felling a sword-wielding rival with a feather-duster, or holding off two men with a 10-foot pole. It’s too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t do what the fight scenes do: use everyday objects to demonstrate where a hero’s true strength lies.