Ip Man: the man, the myth, the movies

He was 51 and penniless when he arrived in Hong Kong, separated from his family and destitute. By chance in 1952, a martial artist named Leung Cheung found Ip Man wandering around Macau and took pity on him, having no idea who he was. He took him in and was shocked when, during a martial arts class that Cheung was teaching, this frail, homeless old man began to criticize his technique. Cheung issued a challenge and was unceremoniously defeated within minutes, giving himself and his class to Ip Man.

read more: The True Stories Behind Martial Arts Movie Legends

This new school of Wing Chun continued to grow in line with Ip’s reputation as a martial artist. It wasn’t a popular style at the time, but by the time Bruce Lee – who learned it from Ip Man – brought it to light in the ’60s, the rest was history. While Ip Man struggled with money and poor health (and an opium addiction) in his later years, he lived to be 79 and his legacy continues today in his writings on Wing Chun and in the form of his son Ip Chun, who inherited the style.

Since the 1990s, a full-fledged Ip Man biopic had been in talks (initially with Corey Yuen attached) but one didn’t go into production until 2008, when Raymond Wong’s Mandarin Films announced their own. Reliable action vet Wilson Yip was placed in the director’s chair and his usual leading man, Donnie Yen, won the title role…

IP Man (2008)

Although it’s made with both respect and full input from Ip’s descendants (Ip Chun was the main Wing Chun consultant on it), it’s not really a biopic, but it’s probably the Ip movie. Man who is closest to the truth. It depicts a fictionalized version of his time in Foshan, retracing his fall from wealth, his struggle during the war, and his refusal to yield to the enemy. In reality, Ip Man has never fought the Japanese in the way depicted here, but what the film offers is a beat-by-beat traditional martial arts plot that takes inspiration from the classics and becomes one in its own right. I feel like if Bruce Lee had watched this he would have loved it, and that’s about the best you can say about a kung fu movie.

The film recreates 1930s Foshan (via Shanghai) in a way that makes it feel like a living, breathing city. The set design is gorgeous and shot with great restraint – in stark contrast to Yip and Yen’s previous flamboyant film, the manhua-inspired film. Dragon Tiger Gate. Yen himself is nothing short of a phenomenon. It’s his most nuanced performance as an actor, and he inhabits Ip Man in a way that, at times, makes him appear possessed by the spirit of the grandmaster.

Kimberly B. Nguyen