Monday, 12 January 2009

Ip Man (葉問) (2008)

In a telling sign, the Grandmaster called the dummy he beat up regularly The Missus (老婆大人)

The eponymous character of this movie happens to be the grandmaster of modern Wing Chun, and this is a mostly fictitious folk legend retelling about the man who would end up teaching a young Bruce Lee martial arts in Hong Kong. Why Wilson Yip chose to fib and outrageous spin the life of a person living in very recent and very recorded history - and present it as a biopic - is a mystery to me, and its rewards are not apparent.

Act 1 of Ip Man is interesting: its pseudo-Marxist prologue explains that due to the long economic boom (the Roaring Twenties, anyone?) in Foshan city, its inhabitants live in a Kuomintang paradise, with money for new clothes every year, and sufficient free time for heads of households to be gentlemen of leisure, engaging in hobbies such as opening martial arts schools.

That's a bold and refreshing take that suggests potential for development: the Grandmaster and his kungfu master colleagues as male tai-tais who engage politely in kungfu and yum-cha, instead of mahjong and yum-cha! Who of course get their male dilettantish tai-tai butts kicked by the real thing: a gang of hooligans from Northern China who rely on their fists and legs for day to day living.

The promising theme and lessons are ditched after Act 1 when the Japanese invade. I'm sure there's a reason why the Japanese army wanted Yip Man to teach them Wing Chun kungfu. The disagreeable general of the occupying forces, as per the tradition set by Fist of Fury, et al, does nothing but karate lessons all day long instead of occupying cities and terrorising civilians. Yet within the established 'historical interpretation' of Act 1, one would expect the General in charge of the occupation to be a Japanese tai-tai and for the story to develop from that foundation.

Character-wise, Wilson Yip fails even at creating a passable folk hero figure. The most simple formulation of heroism: The central character must face a moral dilemma, and chooses the painful, self-denying and sacrificial choice. Sadly, Ip Man is all about watching Donnie Yen play Chinese Steven Seagal, beating up Chinese opponents and maiming Japanese ones in disproportionate, one-sided matches while mouthing about the non-violent, civilised Confucian spirit of Chinese kungfu as opposed to the savagery of Japanese martial arts. Oy!

And worse yet, the characters who do find themselves in heroic situations, making difficult choices and sacrifices are the Japanese general who decides not to fix the final match/fight, and the collaborator who decides to take the punishment from both sides for collaborating. Oy!

There were 2 ways this movie could have gone: as a biopic, with a dedication to telling the truth or at least not blatantly telling untruths while embellishing the tale; or as a fictionalised folk legend full of heroism and whatnot. Wilson Yip fails at the biopic without trying, and fails at even the fictionalised folk legend that he tries for.

The only engaging part of the movie is in its first act, which no doubt is a holdover from the first draft of the screenplay. In what is a telling sign of the shameful tate of HK film industry standards, the writer of the first draft is only credited at the end credits, whereas everyone knows writers - regardless of which stage of production they were involved - are above the line credits.

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