During the last several years an interesting development has occurred in martial arts movies: Some of them have become historical dramas rather than action adventures (whether modern or set in the "heroic age"). There is still lots of martial arts in them, but instead of villains and revenge and the battle between good and evil the focus has changed in the direction of characterization, romance and history, even if the historical aspect is often somewhat glorified for artistic reasons. A great example was the slightly spruced-up biopic of Huo Yuanjia, Fearless (2006), which rates as one of Jet Li's very best movies. Some extra glamor and action, to be sure, but on the whole a dramatization of the life story of a seminal figure in the martial arts world.
It is a very interesting development, because this sort of movies are growing more realistic and modern without compromising the moral and philosophical integrity associated with Asian martial arts. The picture they paint may still be romanticized and highly speculative, but it feels a lot more real than the conventional, hackneyed action/revenge flicks. And as long as the martial arts content remains of high quality, the true kung fu movie fan can have no complaints.
The Legend Is Born: Ip Man (2010) is another movie of this intriguing kind. The backdrop to the core conflict is not some far-fetched personal feud, but a historical element leading back to China's unfortunate predicament in getting caught between a rock and a hard place in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 (the Russians and the Japanese basically fought over which one of them should annex Manchuria, a part of China). This conflict set the agenda for the bad relations between China and Japan for decades thereafter. Hence, the Japanese make natural villains in a Chinese movie of this sort.
Ip Man is the legendary wing chun kung fu master and innovator who trained Bruce Lee. The great wing chun masters of the last century or more, whether they would want to or not, have become heroes of popular myth, and given rise to a thriving industry of martial arts movie entertainment. In reality their lives were not filled with adventure and villainous challenges, but who better to fabricate historic legends about in a time that yearns for cinematic feats of heroic martial arts?
Hong Kong icon Donnie Yen played Ip Man in the highly entertaining 2008 movie of that name, which has a sequel in theaters this year, also starring Donnie Yen (the DVD is available from Asian outlets). The DVD reviewed here, The Legend Is Born: Ip Man (2010), is a prequel to these movies, starring a young Ip Man played by Dennis To in his first lead role. His foster brother, Tin-chi, is played by the impressive Louis Fan, who shot to fame as Riki-Oh in the classic 1991 Hong Kong movie The Story of Ricky, when he was only eighteen.
The Legend Is Born: Ip Man chronicles the upbringing and training of Ip Man and Ip Tin-chi, and how Ip Man goes to the big city where he encounters "non-authentic" wing chun, which intrigues him so much that he brings it back to his home-town school, much to the dismay of his old teacher and school master. This teacher, Chung-So, is played by none other than the idol of most true kung fu movie fans, Yuen Biao (the third guy in the Lucky Stars trio, the more well-known other two being Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung), who hasn't done a lot of movie work in recent years. It was fantastic seeing him again, and in a fairly large and active role, too. In this movie, he takes over as the school master, following the death of the previous master, played by Sammo Hung. They have some great training sequences together.
The focal point of the story is the relationship between Ip Man, his foster brother Tin-chi and their childhood friend Mei-wai (played by Rose Chan), who is also a student at the school. Tin-chi is in love with Mei-wai, but Mei-wai is on love with Ip Man, who however doesn't notice her. Ip Man falls for the mayor's daughter, the rich and modern Wing-shing (Betty Huang), and the unhappy Mei-wai eventually gives in and marries Tin-chi. It takes place across fifteen years (c.1905-1920), and the historical period, with lots of new western influences, is very convincingly painted.
The martial arts in the early part of the movie is all training and discovering new styles, and it is a joy to watch. These guys know their stuff, and there can hardly be much doubt that Dennis To stands before a glorious martial arts movie career. In the second part of the movie, a shady Japanese merchant wants the school to train his people, and, rather strangely, Tin-chi (who is now the school's effective leader) agrees. Saying more would be spoiling. The climax is a mix of triumph and tragedy, but a satisfying blow-out of martial arts action.
It is a good movie with great actors and more than enough entertaining kung fu to keep any fan happy. Yes, there is wire work in some scenes, and one is a bit puzzled that they felt the need for it, since the kung fu they are capable of without it is of such high grade. I don't mind wire work in the more frivolous kung fu adventures, but in more serious movies I think it is mostly unnecessary. However, it is a very good movie in any case.
The new DVD is a nice production, containing a few cast interviews but not much else. The audio is Cantonese with hardcoded English subs. The subtitles are very typical for Asian movies; seemingly a bit too quickly translated (possibly with the aid of a computer), and sometimes disappearing too quickly for us to entirely read them, and stretching so far to either side of the screen that a word or two are sometimes off-screen. But, that's no more than what kung fu movie fans are used to... :-)
My rating: 8 stars out of 10. (Same as I rated the 2008 Ip Man movie.)