The Legend Is Born: Ip Man

cast: To Yu-hang, Fan Siu-wong, Sammo Hung, and Huang Yi

director: Herman Yau

101 minutes (15) 2010
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2

RATING: 5/10
review by Max Cairnduff

The Legend Is Born: Ip Man

This is a prequel to the highly successful biopic Ip Man and its sequel Ip Man 2 (both directed by Wilson Yip, who isn’t part of this project). Ip Man was a master of the Chinese martial art of wing chun, and he trained Bruce Lee. The Wilson Yip films about him take a fair few liberties with the facts, but work well. They cover Ip Man’s years under the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s and the creation of his famed martial arts school.

The Legend Is Born covers Ip Man’s early years, before anything interesting happened to him. Thankfully, it too takes liberties with history giving Ip Man some dastardly pre-invasion Japanese to fight (helpfully they dress in black all the time so making it clear they’re villains), and it covers how he learned his style from three different masters, but it’s weighed down by its respect for its subject and by the simple truth that the reasons people remember Ip Man all came years later.

Ip Man (To Yu-hang) and his adopted brother Ip Tin Chi (Fan Siu-wong) are both enrolled as children in the school of master Chan Wah-shun (Sammo Hung!). There they meet and become fast friends with Lee Mei-wa (Rose Chan) who is a fellow student. As the years pass they become young adults and Lei Mei-wa falls in love with Ip Man, and Ip Tin Chi falls in love with her. Not as much happens because of that triangle as you might hope.

Ip Man meanwhile falls for rich society girl Cheung Wing-shing (Huang Yi). In time honoured fashion he saves her from some local ruffians in an admittedly solid fight scene. Sadly, when Cheung Wing-shing sends her sister to deliver a letter to Ip Man declaring Cheung’s interest the sister hands it over to Lee Mei-wa who promptly disposes of it. Will love be allowed to blossom between Ip Man and Cheung Wing-shing? Do we care?

The cast are generally strong. To Yu-hang is perhaps a little too reserved in the main part, but – arguably – his role as a respectful student does rather require that. Even so, unavoidable as it may be, it does leave a slight flatness at the film’s core. Equally, the romantic subplots don’t entirely persuade and don’t really give the women enough to do.

Where the film is more successful is in Ip Man’s development as a martial artist. There’s a lovely early scene involving a blindfolded fight between Chan Wah-shun and his right hand man Ng Chung-sok (Biao Yuen). Sammo Hung and Biao Yuen both know what they’re doing and their speed and precision is a pleasure to watch. It works too though as an example of teaching: Chan Wah-shun uses the bout to make points both about fighting technique and the underlying philosophy of their art.

Later in the film Ip Man encounters an aged master who is the son of the founder of wing chun. Naturally they fight, and once done this new master teaches Ip Man some highly unorthodox moves. By this time though Ng Chung-sok has become master at Ip Man’s school and he is dedicated to the continuation of Chan Wah-shun’s authentic style of wing chun. Anyone who knows anything about the life of Ip Man (or indeed of Bruce Lee) knows how the struggle between tradition and innovation works out, but it’s nice to see its roots explored here.

A bit of romance and some training bouts aren’t really sufficient to sustain a film and so Herman Yau throws in another storyline. The resident Japanese are abusing their power and intimidating local trade associations. The community is split between pushing back and finding an accommodation. As events escalate however it becomes apparent that the Japanese aren’t interested in finding middle ground. When a local businessman is murdered Ip Man is blamed (they were seen fighting, clearly enough reason to arrest a well liked student with no real motive for the killing) but he realises that the murder conceals a much darker plot.

The Japanese storyline is frankly pretty silly. While most of the film has the serious tone common to bio-pics the Japanese characters (including a beautiful young woman who fights in uniform while wielding a sword) are straight caricatures out of the pulps. It’s not ultimately offensive, but it does sit oddly with the rest of the material.

If you are interested in the life of Ip Man, or in the development of wing chun, then you’ll probably like this film more than I did, and you can bump the score up to a six or even a seven. It does have some great fight choreography (especially the final epic battle between Ip Man and a bunch of Japanese soldiers) and I enjoyed Ip Man’s interactions with his various masters, but it struggles to overcome the fundamental problem that Ip Man’s early life just wasn’t that exciting.

My review copy of The Legend Is Born: Ip Man came with a making-of featurette.