Wilson Yip’s Ip Man is a fictionalised biography of the eponymous hero, with (perhaps unfortunately) emphasis on the ‘fictionalised’ part. It tells the story of Ip Man’s transformation from wealthy, leisured gentleman to poverty-stricken labourer during the Second World War. The opning part of the film shows him as the most accomplished martial artist in the area, politely whupping local masters but never mentioning it in public. The cinematography at the start is often stunning – there are some beautifully shot interiors, for example, triumphs of form and balance which are reminiscent of films like Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern, and used for the same purpose; to establish order and equilibrium at the start of the film. The film looks beautiful throughout; this is its greatest strength.
Of course, Ip Man himself is China in microcosm; his prosperity, his equilibrium, is ruined by the arrival of the Japanese, and at about the midway point this film turns more obviously into an attack on Japanese brutality. The Japanese characters are little more than ciphers of sycophancy and brutality, and there is a slightly uncomfortable mix of history and fantasy in scenes where, for example, Ip Man calls for and beats ten Japanese soldiers single-handedly, and finally (of course) defeats the arrogant Japanese general himself in hand-to-hand combat in front of a baying crowd. The crowd, it is implied, are inspired to fight back against the invading army and thus, Ip Man is responsible for saving China. The most interesting character in the film is the local policeman, a Japanese collaborator who makes the most dramatic transition in the whole film.
It could be argued that such liberty with the truth (Ip Man was in Hong Kong for most of World War two) actually serves only to trivialise what happened in China during the war and, at worst, the film uses serious historical matter to deliver what is little more than a very hackneyed narrative dressed up as biography. The photography and fight scenes are fantastic, however- and arguably, that’s what these wuxia-indebted films do best.