Ip Man, by Wilson Yip, 2008
Biopics, as a whole, just might be my least favorite genre. There are good ones out there. I love Ed Wood, and Bound for Glory, and Amadeus, for example. But for the most part, we in America get Oscar bait that glorifies rather than humanizes the subject, plays fast and loose with historical accuracy, and throws just about every cliche in the book at us.
Well, in Hong Kong, they appear to make biopics pretty much the exact same way, but for one thing: a real sense of fun. Ip Man is the story of the great 20th century martial arts master: Ip Man, best known as the teacher of Bruce Lee. Donnie Yen plays Ip Man, a peaceful, mannered family man in 1930's China. He is frequently visited by other masters eager to prove themselves for a fight, and he takes it in stride, though he refuses to teach his trade, which is the Wing Chun style. That all changes when the Japanese invade and occupy China. Ip Man trains his people in self defense and face off against the invaders.
Yes, the movie glorifies Ip Man. He's treated as almost saintly. The only character flaw I could really find was that he loved Martial Arts so much that he didn't have much time for his wife and children, a trope not too different from the heroes in our rock and roll biopics. And no, I don't know much about the historical Ip Man, but I doubt his life really played out like this, a perfectly structured Martial Arts movie. I really don't mind, though, because none of it feels cynical. It doesn't feel like a product manufactured for awards. What Wilson Yip made was an entertaining and reverent action movie based on a life of an interesting 20th century Chinese figure. The fight scenes are great, and Donnie Yen is extremely charming in the lead. The movie was very successful in China, making tons of money and winning tons of awards, and it led to...
Ip Man 2, by Wilson Yip, 2010
That's right, a sequel! How many biopics get sequels? I guess Che was split into two movies, but usually all the greatest hits of someone's life are covered in one movie, but the first Ip Man only covered a few years in his life, and the sequel picks up right where it left off. Master Ip Man has fled the Japanese occupation in mainland China for Hong Kong, where he opens a school.
The problem is, all the heads of the other schools run a tight racket on the Martial Arts business. He must first prove himself in battle with these guys before they allow him to teach Wing Chun in their territory. There's a great fight sequence between Yen and Sammo Hung where Yen must stay on top of a wobbly table for the entirety of the duel in order to keep teaching.
Then, Ip Man is roped into fighting an English boxer, boxing vs. Wing Chun. The fight seems a little absurd. Seems to me since Ip Man is fighting with his bare fists instead of with gloves, and is allowed to use kicking, that it should be no problem. But the English guy is apparently super strong and nigh-invulnerable, and a big mean jerk to boot, endlessly spouting out swipes at the Chinese.
Like the first entry, Ip Man 2 is a lot of fun. It doesn't try to make things realistic, it's a purely movie world these characters are living in. I didn't think it was quite as good as the first one, but they do play great as one big movie. I'm again impressed with how entertaining and watchable Donnie Yen is as the hero. Oh, and by the end of this movie, Ip Man is still well shy of meeting and teaching Bruce Lee. There's a knowing nod and a wink to the audience at the end that would seem out of place in a serious Hollywood biopic, but works great for the popcorn fun of the Ip Man movies. Maybe someday they'll make an Ip Man 3 with Bruce Lee as a character. I'd watch that.