Just as historically erroneous, morally reductive, and narratively clumsy as we’d wish of a film about Bruce Lee’s mentor, Ip Man is nonetheless an explosive exercise in bare-knuckled myth-biography. Hopelessly heavied by an easily mocked, canonizing grandeur, the movie elides any and all real life details that might humanize its larger-than-life kung fu master protagonist (played by the contemplative Donnie Yen); as such, we have to suppose that Ip Man’s unflappable calm and reserve is the result of tireless block training rather than daily, hearty gong-kicking. Instead, writer Edmond Wong and director Wilson Yip establish their hallowed figure as an elusive local hero in the fortified martial arts center of Foshan; in a departure from the typical humility of wu xia exposition we see him quietly enjoying his reputation and wealth with wife and child, as well as defending the honor of the southern Wing Chun discipline with Quiet Man-like reluctance when pressed by nomadic upstarts. Then the Japanese invade, and Ip Man’s experience in the Second Sino-Japanese War is shamelessly if viscerally revised to that of a fallen star, conflicted insurgent, and, eventually, national symbol.
Consider, then, the inaccuracies to be deliberate distractions from the sparring—subtle obstacles placed by the production team in a moment of witty martial arts inspiration that we can either succumb to or merely acknowledge, knowing that the reward is likely some degree of kinesthetic satisfaction. Consider the same of Ip Man’s undeniable lack of gender egalitarianism and cinematic confidence, the likes of which made Zhang Yimou’s Hero anomalously incisive. Wong and Yip stumble—or intend to stumble us—even with their purposefully un-nuanced portrayal of Japanese barbarism (the gun-toting, toothy-grinned guards are meant to be controversially intimidating, but severed from political context they feel like freeze-dried stereotypes waiting to be made wet and menacing). And unsurprisingly, none of the core characters aside from Ip function as competent dramatic entities: the aforementioned challenging northerners, led by Jin Shanzhao (Fan Siu-wong), emote entirely with constipated grimaces; Li Zhao (Lam Ka-tung), a corrupt policeman who becomes a perfidious translator for the Japanese, can’t even snivel or sneer with conviction; and the Japanese general and karate-practicing arch-nemesis Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), who orchestrates sadistic matches between his troops and Chinese villagers, has a regal superciliousness about him, but his desire to conquer Ip Man’s dexterity appears oddly passionless.
But as with the most exemplary of B kung fu, the film dares us to embrace its disdain of subtlety, rigidly insisting that feelings and motivational complexities are posited appropriately via melee. Ip Man’s bodily form in combat is both cerebrally lucid and gracefully masculine; in one sequence he reduces 10 karate instructors to a writhing, floor-ridden mess with a series of speedy yet intimately conversational chest taps. This sensitivity may partially explain the genre’s mis- and under-representation of women, manifested here by the disposability of Ip Man’s wife (Lynn Hung), who largely exists as a disapproving deterrent, a device to prolong her husband’s inevitable showdown with Miura. And this is not to say that the fight scenes are noticeable feminine either. They are, in fact, too incoherently violent; they awkwardly cut to overhead angles for the sake of variety or pan up and across to the focal action, obfuscating fleshy details for the sake of unneeded kinetic energy. They also fail to properly illustrate the disjunctive aesthetics between kung fu’s limp, balled-finger approach and karate’s shrewd, staccato tension.
Within the patchily assembled and judiciously interspersed medium-wide shots, however, are glimpses of Wing Chun-as-language—lyrical enactments of how one not only defeats an opponent, but respectfully accepts victory with close holds and sharp withdrawals, or consciously disgraces with repetitive punches and leg trips. These gestures are aggressively ephemeral; like the lingual wags with which we specifically express pride, displeasure, or ecstasy, their fleeting nature obscures their significance to both cultural and personal meaning. And Yip ultimately wins us over by structuring his intermittent climaxes as mosaics of thrusting and retracting limbs, the aggregate of which washes away the overcooked local symbolism (a head with a bullet-hole staining a sack of rice, a Japanese flag with burning red set against Foshan’s grey-brown palette). Ip Man practically disregards the historicity of its subject matter altogether, but handicapping our sensibilities with scrawny storytelling prepares us for Yen’s corporeal poetry. The clichés are our brightly jangling keys to this singular magisteria of fists.