Written by: David Brook
Director: Herman Yau
Screenplay: Erica Lee
Producer: Kwok Lam Sin
Starring: Yu-Hang To, Fan Siu Wong, Yuen Biao, Huang Yi, Ip Chun, Sammo Hung
Country: Hong Kong
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 100 min
A sort of semi-official prequel (from what I can gather) to the Donnie Yen starring Ip Man films, The Legend is Born: Ip Man is on paper a cheap cash-in to the successful franchise, but to be honest it’s a solid film in it’s own right. Being a big martial-arts movie fan I’m ashamed to say I haven’t got round to watching either of the previous Ip Man films yet (I’ve got the first on DVD, I just haven’t seen it), but I imagine that’ll probably do this film some favours.
The Legend is Born: Ip Man replaces Donnie Yen with Yu-Hang To (a.k.a. Dennis To), in playing the titular Wing Chun master, famous for mentoring Bruce Lee as well as the first to teach the skill openly around the world. This film charts his early years, from his initial training up to the development of his signature styles and acceptance from his peers. Tagging along are side stories involving a love interest that comes from a wealthy family as well as the issues Man’s adopted brother faces as his athletics association is troubled by a group of Japanese criminals.
Although the DVD’s ‘making of’ claims otherwise, it’s not amazingly historically accurate. Not that I’m an expert on the matter, but clearly the film has used the character as a starting point to mount a fairly standard kung-fu flick. That’s not a problem for me though, in fact I’m glad it didn’t get bogged down in over-earnest idolisation as most Hollywood biopics seem to do. As interesting as the character’s story might be, I found much more pleasure in sitting back and enjoying an old-fashioned period action film that reminded me of the days that films like Once Upon a Time in China and Tai Chi Master dominated my DVD player. It feels like it was produced in that same fruitful period with a similarly lavish production design without being glossily shot and with the same playful wire-assisted choreography.
Being a martial-arts movie it’s the action that’s key of course and it doesn’t disappoint in that department. It’s well paced and the fights are frequent without getting tiresome. Purists may scoff at the wire-work which is fairly prevalent, but most of the choreography feels authentic and is fast, varied and exciting. One of the film’s selling points is the fact that there’s a fight between two legends, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, but to be honest it’s too brief and friendly to be all that exhilarating. One scene that did impress was where Ip Man tries to prove his worth to an old shop keeper (who we discover is actually a Wing Chun master). Looking up who played this impressively skilled fighter uncovered that he was none other than Ip Man’s actual son, Ip Chun, who acted as an advisor to the film, adding a respectable layer of authenticity to proceedings.
I am over-praising the film a bit though. I enjoyed it a lot, but it’s far from brilliant. The writing is very simplistic and the drama predictable and melodramatic. The inclusion of the Japanese villains is unnecessarily silly too – they all wear black and seem to hate the Chinese for no reason (this isn’t uncommon in Chinese films though unfortunately). So at it’s heart it is hammy and by-the-numbers, but it worked for me. I’ve grown tired of the later wave of martial-arts films that came from Hong Kong that wanted to be either the Matrix or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, so it was refreshing to see something a little more straightforward, yet often more effective.
The Legend is Born: Ip Man is released on DVD on the 20th September by Metrodome. The DVD only has one feature of note and that’s a short, but fairly informative ‘making of’ featurette.
Review by David Brook
Watch the trailer below: