Ip Man (HK 2008)

Rating: ****
Alternate Title: Yip Man
Review Date: 5/8/10
Director: Wilson Yip
Music: Kenji Kawai
Action Choreography: Samo Hung
Cast: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Fan Siu Wong, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi

Director Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen team up once again for this semi-biographical tale of Yip Man, one of the first grand masters of Wing Chun. To western audiences, he is probably best known as Bruce Lee's instructor. Life in Fo Shan, China was wonderful in the 1930s until the Japanese invaded in 1937. After that, the Chinese population suffered terribly, and the once prosperous and carefree Yip Man was forced into poverty. Circumstances finally push him too far and he is forced to fight back, which earns him the admiration of a brutal Japanese fighter named General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi). Yip Man ultimately wins a fair duel against Miura, but a treacherous Japanese officer decides to shoot Yip Man as a result. This brazen act of foul play unites the Chinese to stand up to their oppressors and take back what was theirs. It's a familiar story, but it's still a good one. Of course, we all know that Yip Man survived his injuries and made it safely to Hong Kong, where he later opened up a Wing Chun dojo.

Wilson Yip's direction is excellent and the cinematography is gorgeous. It's been a while since I've seen a Chinese period piece that looked so colorful and full of life. When the Japanese finally arrive, all of the color bleeds out of the film and it becomes a dark and dreary tale of hardship and tragedy. Unfortunately, the pacing suffers due to the heavy dramatic tone, and it's Donnie Yen's reluctant fight scenes that bring everything together. The choreography and execution are excellent, and while the wire work is kept to a bare minimum, it's still visually awkward and looks out of place within the context of the film. It also doesn't help that so many shots are filmed in slow motion, which allows the viewer more time to analyze and dissect the scene. Not that I'm complaining, because it still looks fantastic. There are also some very effective visual effects used to convey the hard hitting brutality that the more powerful characters exhibit. Very impressive, and not for the faint of heart. Donnie Yen delivers a very solid performance, but as is so often the case with Chinese folk heroes (take Wong Fei Hung for instance), the character's stoic persona doesn't allow for much emotional depth. All of the performances are top notch, and veteran Fan Siu Wong nearly steals the show as a kung fu bully. Excellent work all around.