Recently I watched Monsters, Gareth Edwards’ reasonably low-budget sci-fi and romance flick. Getting over the being-bashed-on-the-head subtext about racial inequality and the U.S.’ view of the poor and foreigners alike as ‘alien’, the film has a very gorgeous sense of cinematography. The landscapes are verdant, the cityscapes alive, rusted, and full of movement. Edwards’ film captures beautiful moments with economy and subtlety.
Why mention this? Because unfortunately the very next film I watched, immediately afterwards, was this film, Ip Man: The Legend is Born. And what a contrast in terms of visual style it is.
Director Herman Yau certainly is more than a little in love with overt and big gesture camera movement. Nearly every second scene seems to involve either swooping crane shots or dolly and tracking shots, and it feels like all this endless movement is intended to give the film an ‘epic’ sweep, almost literally. Unfortunately it gets very obtrusive, this style, and it’s not helped by the intermittent nature of some of the scenes, some of which start up and finish with barely an introduction. These are there, no doubt, to create a sense of mood or give a little background, but instead they sometimes run the risk of creating a sense of disjointedness and distance.
In the spirit of generosity these restless and kinetic shots might be intended to be of a piece with Wing Chun itself, all movement and arcs and to-ing and fro-ing. If so, the marriage of the use of the camera with the theme of the movie could have been better observed and thought-out.
So to the plot. This film bears no relation to the Donnie Yen films, apart from featuring both Sammo Hung and Fan Siu-wong, though in different characters. It also bears only a slim connection to Ip Man’s early life story and, to that end, it seems to be a little bandwagonesque, acting as more of a homage to the ‘idea’ of Ip Man as an heroic and articulate figure, and to the film’s of Ip Man’s most famous student, Bruce Lee, with a more generous dose of philosophy and romance thrown in.
There seems to be some whispering subtext about the question of loyalty, and the film ponders, to no great conclusion, how loyalties to a code or a friend or a country are fluid and flexible, dependent on circumstances. That it makes no real conclusion about these things is a strength of sorts. The film’s wistful tone is suited to a lack of conclusion: we are meant to feel sad about just what we can trust and the ephemeral and changeable nature of things. The film’s yearning is not just about what might have been, but what might yet still be. To be conclusive, then, would be too definite a thing against such pensive musings.
Some of this is underlined with the rise of technology and the influence of the West. So we get an early vampire film, or a phonograph, both Western-ish and both used as signposts to the romance between Ip Man (played with efficient martial arts expertise and a quite nice centredness by Dennis To Yu-Hang) and Cheung Wing-shing (Crystal Huang Yi). The record on the phonograph is that English plaintive lament ‘Greensleeves’, often incorrectly ascribed to Henry VIII. The cameras pan in on this record so often, this odd, circling thing, that director Herman Yau seems determined to pummel it as a signifier for the characters fascination and involvement with the way the world is changing.
And so we also get, and not atypically for such a film, a discursiveness about tradition and progression. The English characters are fascinated by the Chinese, while the Chinese wonder what the English want. The Japanese are treated a little more harshly, and the film teeters a little towards xenophobia, but perhaps no more so than a Die Hard film, where beating up anyone with Germanic accent is, like, cool. It is a watered down thing here: as others have noted, the xenophobia in Yau’s film is less pronounced than that in the two Donnie Yen films.
Mostly this is because of the mellow and sad tone that pervades most of the film. Indeed, the actions sequences here, while not breaking new ground, are still often solid and sometimes startling pieces of engineering, the Wing Chun blocks and punches fast, furious and beautifully agile.
But it is that forlorn tone that gets much of this film over the mark. The romantic elements are not so much between two charismatic leads with great chemistry, but two actors who are caught in a film that knows how small vignettes, a sweet and sad score, and a longing glance can carry just as much weight.
Of course this tone gets lost towards the end as the action inevitably ramps up, but even then, in the film’s closing action-riddled moments, small scenes of regret and sadness and flashbacks creep in, as if the film can’t let go of its strange, cloudy grief and nostalgia. One wonders what the writer and director of this film were going through.
Flawed it is, solid, unpretentious and reliable too. But there is something else there, and it is this melancholia which, although it could have been pushed even more and the subtext of change more realised, give Ip Man: The Legend is Born a tiny edge.