Ip Man: The Legend is Born (2010, Herman Yau)
After the massive success of the first two Ip Man films, Ip Man (2008, Wilson Yip) and Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grand Master (2010, Wilson Yip), the natural inclination of the Hong Kong studio system was to give the audience some more. However, with the most crucial aspects of Ip Man’s life having been told already through the first two instalments, albeit with at times exaggerated, self-indulgent kung fu glee, there was little left in terms of story to tell if the choice had been to march onward. So what does one do in such a predicament? Well, go into the past and make a prequel of course. Have you not been following the trends lately? The North American premier of Ip Man: The Legend is Born occurred this past weekend at Fantasia in Montréal to a crowd of martial arts hungry fans. Did it really matter that even the beloved Ip Man series had chosen to follow suite with virtually all other movies franchises, both American and not, by playing the old prequel card? Perhaps a little, at least for me, but just having another Ip Man film appeared to more than enough to wet the appetite of the packed house on Sunday, including yours truly (otherwise I would not have been there!).
A few flashbacks show the audience a very young Ip Man and his adoptive brother Ip Tin Chi arriving at a Wing Chun school in Foshan run by Chan Wah-shun (Sammo Hung, obviously playing a different character than he did in the first two films). As time elapse and our two youngsters grow older, their paths start diverging a little bit. Ip Man (Dennis To) has been away from Foshan for a while, learning a type of Wing Chun style, a style that does not go down very well with his teachers in Foshan. His brother, Ip Tin-chi (Fan Siu-wong), while still practicing the orthodox Wang Chung style, has also become a great young business, with many business ties with the Japanese, whom the Chinese mistrust (the Japanese, like in the first Ip Man film, just look really evil anyways). Our protagonists also find out that love can hurt, since fellow student Lee Mai-wei (Rose Chan) wants Ip Man, but Ip Man wants Foshan’s mayor’s daughter, Cheung Wing-shing (Huang Yi). With the Japanese seemingly overly ambitious in their economic excursions into China, especially considering that they are heavily using Ip Tin-chi as an ally, what is Ip Man to do?
By now, the series has a formula of sorts. Demonstrate Ip Man’s virtues just in case the audience hasn’t clued in yet that he is the hero, show off any non-Chinese characters as the villainous, toss in some outrageously cool martial arts sequences, and you have yourself an Ip Man. The author will be damned if it does not work however. Certainly in this film, given that Ip Man is younger, the filmmakers allow themselves to make the character a little bit less impervious to error, but at the end of the day, this is clearly a super great guy. Thankfully, actor (and genuine Wing Chun practitioner, unlike Donnie Yen) Dennis To is charming in the titular role. By perhaps the 10 minute mark there is no longer any doubt, if there had been any, as to whether or not he could pull off the action scenes convincingly. He moves fantastically, with a remarkable mixture of grace, precision, and brutal power. Granted, there are a few moves here or there that are enhanced, mostly through fancy wire work, but for the most part what the audience gets is amazingly real...and just pure amazing. He also possesses some interesting charm, is capable with some of the funny lines in delivering with a calculated sense of awkwardness, thus adding some much needed charisma to the role. Throughout the series, Ip Man has been a stoic-like figure, with some hints of humanity and a sense of humour sprinkled about. Dennis To captures those elements nicely, making the character believable not only for this particular entry, but also in terms of what is to come, technically speaking, with Donnie Yen later on. It was also really nice to see Fan Siu-wong return to the franchise, even though he is not playing the same character (he was a rival martial artist in the first two films). He has a great face as an actor, incredibly expressive. It is a face that can elicit pity, laughter, fear, tension. His character in the previous two films was not very developed, making his appearance in this instalment all the more interesting seeing as how he plays a conflicted character, one who must wrestle his allegiance to the Foshan Wing Chun school and his new Japanese partners who, if they are trying to behave as civil business, are doing a very poor job at it. If one takes a moment to think about it, it almost seems as if Ip Tin-chi’s struggle is greater than Ip Man’s, although this must have been unintentional.
Complaints about the Japanese characters being portrayed as ‘too evil’ will fall on death ears. Yes, this reviewer does think so, but one has to realize that in an Ip Man, that is what one will get as villains: cartoons. Perhaps a more important issue to consider therefore is the matter of the love square involving, Ip Man, Ip Tin-chi, Cheung Wing-shing and Lee Mai-wei. It is not that no love story should have been developed, only that these ones feel either pedestrian or clunky most of the way through. Notwithstanding a funny moment when Ip Man demonstrates to Cheung Wing-shing how he practices Wing Chun, there is not much there to genuinely captivate and sweep the audience. The manner in which the film decides to finally handle the Tin-chi/Mai-wei relationship requires a leap faith in the audience that I for one was unable to provide.
All things considered, it is still a very serviceable action film. There are plenty of jaw-dropping moments for the martial arts fans, and the story is essentially par for the course in the Ip Man series. The subtitle of ‘Legend is Born’ does not truly pay off, other than in the fact that that the character learns another variety of Wing Chun than the one he already knew and finds a wife, but at that point, debates about the intricacies of plot are going to end up as superfluous for a movie like this. Was there a requirement for a third instalment that functioned as a prequel? Absolutely not, but because Herman Yau’s film offers enough of what audiences are looking for in a film of this nature, we are still happy to have it.