Running Out of Karma: Herman Yau’s The Legend is Born: Ip Man

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Oh yeah, another movie about Ip Man. This one covers his early years, growing up in a kung fu school, his first romance, years in college and such. The emphasis, more than in any of the others, is on the specifics of the Wing Chun technique itself, with a whole plot line built around the issue of whether or not a high kick is authentic enough. To this end, the film is aided immeasurably by the presence of Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. The two old pros play the young Ip’s teachers, and the film begins with a beautiful blindfolded sparring sequence between the two. The early scenes in the school are reminiscent of some scenes from Painted Faces, the Hung-starring 1988 film that chronicles his own youth in a Peking Opera school, growing up with Yuen Biao, Jackie Chan, Corey Yeun etc.

Even more delightful is a quest-starring turn by Ip Chun, Ip Man’s oldest son. Still teaching his father’s style, Ip served as a consultant for most of this cycle of Ip Man films. Here he plays a Leung Bik, a breakaway disciple who has added controversial innovations to the form and thus been ostracized from his family and the broader Wing Chun community. But he has a deep influence on Ip Man, opening him up to innovation in his martial art just as his time at an English college in Hong Kong is opening him up to the possibilities of the wider world (one of the primary themes of Wong Kar-wai’s film). All of these early scenes stick pretty closely to the historical record and are much more interested in the specifics of the Wing Chun art than they are any kind of personal or historical drama. This is what distinguishes this from the other Ip Man films. The Wilson Yip films, starring Donnie Yen, follow a more conventional historical biopic structure with the great man caught in the sweep of historic events leading to triumph and tragedy; while Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster uses Ip as a conduit to explore the passing of one age of China’s history into another, with martial arts serving a metaphorical purpose. All of the Ip Man films explore the uniqueness of the Wing Chun style, but none with the dedication of this one.

However, the film’s factuality falls apart in the final third. In this story, Ip has an adopted brother, Ip Tin-chi and a friend from school, a woman named Mei-wai. She loves Man, and Tin-chi loves her, but Man is oblivious (he pursues instead his future wife, the daughter of the wealthy deputy mayor played by Lam Suet). None of this love triangle stuff works, mostly because Rose Chan, playing Mei-wai, plays every emotion so broadly. Dennis To’s Ip is what we come to expect from the character: reserved, calm, steely. Chan’s highly emotional melodramatic performance contrasts poorly with To’s underplaying. Louis Fan, as Tin-chi, doesn’t fare much better, but as his plot line becomes increasingly ridiculous (to lead us to the inevitable all-out battle extravaganza) there’s not much he can do to make it work. To’s performance is actually pretty good, the first starring role for the wushu champion. He actually reminded me a lot of the young Donnie Yen.

As the film’s plot reaches its absurd conclusion, the fight scenes become the only really interesting thing (although I guess the idea of an army Japanese sleeper agent children at work in 1920s Foshan is interesting). Fortunately, the fights are pretty great, beautifully shot by Yau (who worked as a cinematographer on Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide and Seven Swords, with an emphasis on realism in the movements and actions. There are a few leaps aided by digital wires, but otherwise the action is clean and crisp and highly legible, with a judicious uses of overhead shots, slow motion and close-ups used to highlight particularly unusual or innovative actions. With this approach, the deliberateness with which Yau explores the intricacies of the Wing Chun style and demonstrates those nuances on-screen, this is the closest I’ve seen a 21st Century kung fu film follow in the Lau Kar-leung tradition.

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