Directed by Wilson Yip
Written by Edmond Wong and Chan Tai-Li
Hong Kong, 2008
In this biopic, Donnie Yen is Ip Man, one of the earliest Wing Chun martial arts exponents and the man credited to have elevated its popularity in the early parts of the 20th century. Best known for his role as Bruce Lee’s first mentor, Ip Man is godlike amongst martial arts fans. As far as biopics goes, Ip Man isn’t really award-winning material. The picture takes plenty of liberties with the facts of the legendary practitioner of the Southern Chinese fighting style. It’s slightly exaggerated and fairly straightforward storytelling, but first and foremost, Ip Man is an excuse for Yen to demonstrate his newfound mastery of the Wing Chun style – and on that front, the film succeeds brilliantly.
Ip Man is a joy on various levels due mostly to the quality of the fights and Yen’s pure charisma. Ip Man also benefits largely from the lucid fight direction by the master Sammo Hung. The battle choreography is clever and Yen makes the action intense with his incredible speed, confidence, and abilities. Yen, a veteran in martial arts, honestly presents Wing Chun for what it is: a martial art usually considered more delicate for focusing on speed, not brute force. It’s a fighting style that often gets labelled effeminate, since Wing Chun was founded by a woman. Yen stays calm, cool, and focused, folding in wry humour and emotional undercurrents along the way, and one can easily claim it is his best performance.
The film was a massive hit in Asia, picking up Best Film and Best Action Choreography from a total of 12 nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards; later, two sequels were produced.
Ip Man 2
Directed by Wilson Yip (Yip Wai Shun)
Written by Edmond Wong
Hong Kong, 2010
Continuing the narrative from where the first film left off, Ip Man 2 sees our titular hero (Donnie Yen) reprising his role in the sequel, following the further adventures of the grandmaster of Wing Chun. Just before the end of the Sino-Japanese war, Ip escapes the wrath of the Japanese prison camp by fleeing to Foshan with his wife and son. In desperate need of income, he begins to teach Wing Chun to a group of pupils only to discover that martial arts schools in Foshan are operated like triads. Conflicts brew and tempers flare when Ip meets resistance from Master Hung (Sammo Hung), a fellow kung fu master, and the British authorities who bully the local fisherman. Somehow, he finds himself in an East vs. West martial arts tournament where he has to fend for his country and countrymen against a racist boxing champion named Twister (Darren Shahlavi), who wreaks havoc on their national pride.
Ip Man 2 suffers mostly from its all-too-familiar screenplay. Think Rocky 4, The Karate Kid and any early Jean Claude Van-Damme film. Less dramatic arcs, little character development, and the usual themes of integrity, ignorance and prejudice populate the screen. Yet somehow, the sequel triumphs in terms of sheer entertainment value, mostly because of the screen time shared between Hung and Yen. With Hung joining the cast as a rival master, Ip Man 2 raises the bar of martial arts performances even higher than its predecessor. Seeing Hung and Yen on-screen, side-by-side, is nothing less than magic and is only exceeded by a showdown atop a wobbly table, in what would be the art of Wing Chun versus the style of Hung Ga Kuen. The action choreography, once again designed by Hung, continues to amaze, improving on the previous film. Even more importantly, unlike the first film, Ip Man meets his match not once, but twice. Perhaps the biggest letdown in the original was that Ip Man was clearly better than everyone else and never in any danger of losing a battle. The suspense here is unbearable at times and watching the gut-wrenching action inside the ring is just as painful as it looks. The production values are top-notch. Every swirling camera movement, every distinctive angle, every extreme close-up makes for brilliant cinematography and pitch-perfect editing, and while the kung-fu vs. boxing battles sequences have little to do with reality, they cinematically explode, bringing to mind Raging Bull.
Dynamic, relentless and funnier than its predecessor, Ip Man 2 is the flashier, hipper, and better-looking of the two. If you’re looking for a no-brainer martial arts flick where the fight choreography is at its best, Ip Man 2 will not disappoint.
Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story
Directed by Rob Cohen
Written by Edward Khmara, John Raffo and Rob Cohen
Hailed as cinema’s first bridge between the cultures of East and West, Bruce Lee helped put Hong Kong and martial arts on the movie world map. Twenty years after his untimely death, this loving biography, adapted from his widow’s memoir, Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew, was made. The film was released only a few short weeks following the supposedly accidental death of rising film star Brandon Lee, son of Bruce and Linda. Brandon died of a gunshot wound on March 31, 1993 on set of The Crow. Like father, like son, their demises have been shrouded in mystery, rumours, and conspiracy theories ever since. One of the strengths of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, however, is its refusal to deal with Lee’s death. Instead, the film is a celebration of how Lee lived. As such, it accomplishes what it set out to do while keeping its audience entertained from start to finish.
As adapted from Linda’s book, Dragon is entirely from her perspective, so don’t expect a hard-hitting drama. She is his biographer, and thus, Dragon spends most of its running time as a love story. As with most biopics, Dragon suffers from excessive melodramatics and sappy sentimentality. We see very little of Lee’s internal struggles and early childhood. As a love story, Dragon works well to some degree, simply because of the charisma and chemistry of its two leads. But as a story about a Chinese outsider, Dragon succeeds with its treatment of racism and stereotyping in America, especially in Hollywood, and Lee’s constant struggle to overcome discrimination. One of the film’s highlights sees Lee attending a screening of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in which Mickey Rooney is cast as Audrey Hepburn’s Asian neighbour. In that moment, Lee gets his first true glimpse into Hollywood’s discrimination against ethnic minorities. Later, Lee loses a role in Kung Fu, a TV series he originated, to white actor David Carradine, and when cast as Kato in The Green Hornet, the producers request he never take off his mask.
Where Dragon shines is with director/co-writer Rob Cohen’s direction and John Cheung’s (a former member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team) fight choreography. While Dragon might fail in giving us a complete picture of Lee, the film deftly captures the energy and exuberance of Lee’s Jeet Kune Do style of martial arts. Dragon’s fight scenes are constructed after the manner of Lee’s oddball grace, speed, and over-the-top kung fu style seen in his motion pictures. We get all of Lee’s greatest hits, including memorable re-creations of Lee as Kato on The Green Hornet, the icehouse fight from Fists of Fury, and the hall-of-mirrors climax from his most successful film, Enter the Dragon. The result is most entertaining, especially a back alley brawl set to the sound of Booker T. & the M.G.s.
Yet with all the martial arts glory, what makes Dragon winning is the lively central performance by Jason Scott Lee, a Hawaiian actor with no relation to Bruce. Lee provides an accurate portrayal of Bruce, capturing his firm and precise physical movements as well as his sense of humor and explosive onscreen magnetism. Although he had no prior martial arts training, Lee is at his best during the fight scenes, revealing a repertoire of kicks, punches, and somersaults. With training from fighter Jerry Poteet (a disciple of Bruce Lee), he captures the practicality, flexibility, speed, and efficiency of Jeet Kune Do. In short, he is the movie’s best ingredient.
“The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.” This St. Augustine quote, which appears at the end of the film, best summarizes its tone. While many of the events of Bruce Lee’s life aren’t explored in much depth, this biography does wholeheartedly capture and celebrate Bruce Lee’s spirit.
Directed by Woo-ping Yuen
Written by Elsa Tang and Wing-Fai Wong
Hong Kong, 1993
Hong Kong’s queen of action cinema, Michelle Yeoh, headlines this martial-arts film, a period piece with an unusual feminist twist, and a unique stylistic approach to violence and sexual politics. Wing Chun weaves a romantic subplot that relies on mistaken identity and gender confusion, something rarely seen in Hong Kong cinema. Yeoh stars as the titular character, derived from a historical legend about a female Shaolin warrior who founded the titular style of Chinese hand-to-hand combat. This film was made at the height of Michelle Yeoh’s comeback, having retired for many years, before making her return to Hong Kong cinema when co-starring alongside Jackie Chan in Supercop: Police Story 3. Wing Chun was also made to cash in on the ever-growing popularity of the more modern styled period martial arts films, a trend that really took off with the success of such hits as the Once Upon a Time In China and Fong Sai Yuk series. Truth be told, Wing Chun isn’t a landmark kung fu film, and even the martial arts style named after the titular character is hardly employed throughout, but Wing Chun has three saving graces: veteran martial artist and director Yuen Woo-ping (the man who not only popularized the new style but almost singlehandedly invented it) choreographs some truly breathtaking scenes of martial arts magic. Secondly, Yeoh’s fighting technique will leave audiences flabbergasted. Finally, Donnie Yen stars opposite Yeoh in a surprising offbeat comedic performance that is worth the price of admission alone.
Martial arts movie aficionados will feel right at home with the beautifully choreographed action sequences, most of which carry a feeling of urgency, something often missing in martial arts flicks. The highlight of the picture is a stunning set piece where Wing Chun fights while balancing a tray of tofu in the air, just out of reach of her assailant. A second classic fight scene involves Wing Chun and Flying Chimpanzee balancing on top of a long spear lodged into a stone wall. Also worth noting: Hong Kong movie legend Waise Lee, turns in a rare comic performance, and Cheng Pei Pei cameos as Wing Chun’s mentor.
Wing Chun may lack the visual polish of The Grandmaster, and probably ranks among Yuen Woo-ping’s lesser efforts, but nevertheless, it gets by with a winning mixture of dainty humour, flying wire work, swordplay, creative action, and colourful characters. Even a lesser Woo-ping effort is well worth a watch.
- Ricky D