Ip Man (pronounced Eep-Mun) is a martial arts film driven by what motivates a person to perform and practice martial arts than one obsessed with a mindless carousel of fight scenes and a minimalist plot line. The story of Ip Man takes place in Kwangtung, Foushan, the “it” town for the martial arts culture in China during the 1930’s. During this time period, specifically 1935, the main character in the film, Ip Man (Donnie Yen), is an independently wealthy individual whose sole occupation is the practice of Wing Chun kung fu. Ip Man is a soul practitioner of Wing Chun, it makes him complete, like surfing made Bodi complete in Point Break. In many mainstream action movies, their plots are worked out around set-piece action sequences, where in Ip Man, it is almost the opposite. Continuing down the Robert Forest-like road less traveled, Ip Man tries to avoid fighting competitions. It is against his nature yet he is a master of his art form hence his conundrum. To partake in said art form, he must practice, fight or at least spar on occasion. This conundrum is exasperated by his combat-weary wife Wing Cheng (Lynn Hung). At one time it must have been exciting to be around someone so skilled but having been married, she has now become all too aware of the cost of that skill.
Ip Man is humble almost to fault: he accepts no disciples, whether they are willing to pay for his tutelage or not. Initially, it also does not matter how worthy they are of his teachings either. His life is devoted to his family and to practice. It is only in extreme situations that Ip Man uses his skill offensively and it is at these times that Ip Man shows he has nothing to be humble about when it comes to martial arts. Though Ip Man will not fight for himself or personal gain, he will fight for honor, whether it is his, his friends or his communities.
Towards the end of the film, Ip Man has more than a valid reason to fight: the brutalism he witnesses at the hands of the Japanese and the wrongful death of his comrades and friends. In 1937, the Japanese invade China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Because of this invasion, virtually everyone in town is left destitute and despondent about the economic and cultural turn of events. Many honorable individuals, including Master Liao (Chen Zhi Hui) and Police Inspector Li Zhao (Lam Ka-Tung), engage in totally alien practices to put food on the table for their family during this depressed time period.
This is true of Ip Man as well, who must do physical labor for the first time in his life and must stop the practice of what brings him great joy to conserve energy, Wing Chun. Ip Man is not the only karate practitioner facing this predicament. He and others martial arts enthusiasts are eventually given an opportunity to do what they love to do by Japanese General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) to provide rice for themselves and the ones they hold most dear. It is through these “engagements” that Ip Man turns a profound corner in his life both internally and externally. The intuitive can probably surmise what both of these changes entail. Inside and out of this film’s realm, these alterations changed the course of many people’s lives, one well known martial artist in particular.
Wilson Yip’s Ip Man is a good martial arts film about an extraordinary martial arts Grand Master. Ip Man is not quite as good as Fearless but it serves its purpose. It brings an important figure in the history of martial arts to the viewers’ attention.