With Ip Man, Donnie Yen takes on his meatiest role yet. He’s played the central hero before (in Iron Monkey and in the miniseries of Fist of Fury, for example) but they’ve all been a bit over the top: period-era takes on the unstoppable leather-jacketed Donnie we know from most of his films. The title character of this film, however, is a quiet young kungfu master of 1930’s Foshan, born into privilege and not a willing participant in the constant rivalry between martial arts schools in the area.
So, Donnie Yen has to display a bit more range in this film than we’re used to, far more than in his recent neon-tinged collaborations with director Wilson Yip. And he does a workmanlike job: his Ip Man is a dignified, confident character, thoroughly deserving of the sly little complaint Fan Siu Wong’s character makes before he meets him in the film: “I thought you were all Wong Fei Hung in this town?”
The film quickly establishes Ip Man as the preeminent martial artist in a city of kungfu practitioners, but also as a fairly retiring character: he lives with his wife and young son in a mansion a little out of town, and has no desire to run a martial arts school or take students. His quiet lifestyle, however, is soon challenged — first by the arrival of a brutally strong northern martial artist (played by Fan Siu Wong) and then by the Japanese occupation.
There’s a lot to like about Ip Man. As I’ve said, it pushes Donnie Yen to act more than he’s had to for a while, and he does a great job. It’s got Fan Siu Wong, who we haven’t seen in a real martial arts film in ages. And it’s got great choreography from Sammo Hung and Tong Leung Siu Hung — Sammo has a bit of a history of handing the action in great Wing Chun films (see: The Prodigal Son, Warriors Two), and this continues his track record of crisp, inventive action sequences. It’s nice to see the emphasis on Wing Chun here, too: this isn’t the wire-fu you remember from the 90s, nor the kickboxing and mixed-martial-arts approach we’ve seen from Donnie Yen in the past.
Ip Man is a solid addition to the brace of Chinese historical/folk hero films that used to grace the box office much more often than they do now. My expectations from Donnie Yen on the dramatic front have been raised significantly, and I look forward to seeing the sequel — apparently planned, thanks to this film’s success — which will have him training the young Bruce Lee, Ip Man’s most famous legacy.