Film Review: Ip Man

Kung fu master Ip Man popularizes the Wing Chun style of fighting before facing the Japanese during World War II. First-rate martial-arts film about Bruce Lee's real-life teacher.

A smash hit throughout Asia when it was released in 2009, Ip Man turns the martial-arts legend's life into a powerful, exciting story. With outstanding fight scenes, a thoughtful script, and excellent work from Donnie Yen, this throwback to the heyday of Hong Kong action will delight genre fans.

Yen plays Ip Man as a quiet, unflappable family man who is the master of a style of kung fu that had fallen out of favor in the 1930s. Based in Guangdong, Ip doesn't give classes per se, he offers advice as a favor to friends, always careful not to upset his wife (Lynn Hung) by breaking furniture. Ip stands down rivals and thugs by letting them defeat themselves, reversing their assaults with subtle shifts in power and positioning.

The mood of the film turns from comic to somber as the Japanese invade the mainland, impoverishing city and countryside alike. Reduced to manual labor, Ip is later forced to defend a friend's honor by battling a succession of Japanese athletes, leading to a bloody encounter with the sadistic Japanese officer Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi).

Hollywood action directors can only dream of staging fights as precise and kinetic as those in Ip Man. Choreographed by Hong Kong legend Sammo Hung, the action here is quick, inventive and consistently solid, the moves the result of physical skill rather than editing and CGI. Yen, who broke into the business when Hung and Jackie Chan ruled Hong Kong cinema, is one of the last of his kind, a performer whose acting is as graceful as his athletics. Director Wilson Yip, a veteran of several of Yen's features, makes the most of his settings, evoking a rough but idyllic pre-war China as capably as the poverty and fear that followed.

Closing credits explain how Ip Man later established his influential martial-arts school in Hong Kong, eventually becoming teacher and mentor to Bruce Lee. In fact, the film was so popular that within months the principals reunited for Ip Man 2, which covers the teacher's Hong Kong years in an even more entertaining fashion. Until that opens here next year, you will be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable kung fu release than Ip Man.