Well, what can I say? The new Mandarin Films picture "Ip Man" starring Donnie Yen and choreographed by my fav Sammo Hung was actually not bad. I was convinced from the trailers that the film would be a complete turkey with the usual theatrical "wing chun" spun over some ridiculous story. But I have to say the movie did leave me thoroughly entertained and not unsatisfied as far as the fight scenes go. Mind you, the story was mostly a complete fabrication, but then again, would we expect more from biopic these days? It would be difficult and daunting for anyone to try to paint a true story of the late grandmaster Yip Man with all the politics and division in our kung-fu family. But still, it seems the producers where going for a bit of the tired old folk-hero feel that they tried with everyone from Wong Fei Hung to Fong Sai Yuk, but this time only a "bit" more subdued (no major wires!).
Aside from Donnie Yen's decent performance in the film, I have to say I was very impressed with Fan Siu Wong playing the "northerner" who comes to Fatshan to challenge all the kung-fu instructors. Simon Yam also stars and I feel that he is such a great actor but was a bit under utilised. It was strange having such a A-list HK celebrity playing what felt like a bit role.
Perhaps what impressed me most was Sammo's bravery to stick to more real WingTsun fighting ideas and not add flashy high kicks or spins. His last great attempt at our style on film was "The Prodigal Son" (1983) which happens to be one of my all time favorite films due to the incredible choreography. Prodigal Son's choreography was not very authentic to WingTsun in a purist sense - Sammo still relied on a lot of old faithful's of high kicks, spins and straight up non-WingTsun swing punches. But with "Ip Man" it was different. Sammo really stuck to the conventions of lower kicks, chain-punching and even some more advanced WingTsun techniques. Like the old WT joke that we do kick to the head in WT, we just don't kick high (inside joke meaning we only kicked a downed opponent in the head...lol) was faithfully observed on a couple occasions during "Ip Man". My only complaint stylistically would be that there were a few too many "block + block + block" combos when all WT purists know our motto of "lin siu dai da" (linking defense with offense). However I was pleasantly surprised with some really choice pieces of choreography - the neck-pulling hand with the lifting punch from chum kiu, the WT sweeps, and some decent, almost logical elbow techniques were all particularly refreshing.
The Japanese have always been an easy target for films taking place in this period. Despite the dark history, it would be nice if they could have focused on the more documented aspects of the late grandmaster's life, and not go for the simple backdrop of "evil Japanese". The scene of Donnie Yen's Ip Man taking on ten Japanese martial artist seems eerily reminiscent of the Chinese Connection. While it was the hardest hitting (in my opinion) of all the fight scenes, I just couldn't shake the feeling that I had seen it all before.
But on reflection it seems quite obvious why the story focused on the "evil Japanese". According to the story, it would seem that grandmaster Yip Man left China for Hong Kong to escape the Japanese. It is widely know that the late grandmaster left China in 1949 to flee the communists. However, with "Ip Man" relying on a huge mainland Chinese market to be successful, it seems that any anti-communist tones had to be left out. In fact most movie promotion for this film is done almost exclusively in mainland China and even the titles are done all in simplified (mainland Chinese) characters. Oh, times are changing fast! It's been a little over ten years since the handover of Hong Kong to mainland China and I can really start to see the takeover bleed into HK pop-culture.
With a sequel already greenlighted (about grandmaster Yip Man's later HK years) and a supposed Wong Kar Wai/Tony Leung "Yip Man" movie in the works, it seems our beloved WingTsun will be in the press for a time to come.