The story of Ip Man – legendary Kung Fu master of China and teacher of Bruce Lee – has been a popular one in martial arts films for almost as long as there has been martial arts films. Director Kar Wai Wong (Chungking Express, 2046) isn’t exactly known for action filmmaking, so when it was announced he’d be tackling the story of Ip Man, at least some heads were scratched: would he be making a traditional kung fu film, or would he somehow find a way to bring the Kung Fu master’s life into synch with his own storytelling obsessions?
The correct answer lies behind door number two, but it takes a while for it to become clear as our story begins with Ip Man (Tony Leung) establishing his dominance over the minions of the rival Northern School by pounding on a whole bunch of them in a battle during a massive rainstorm. The head of the Northern School is retiring, and while he’s already selected his successor from the North, he wants to at least try to unite all of China’s martial arts schools, and so announces an exhibition match between his successor and the South’s champion.
Ip Man is clearly the man for the job, but while he takes down the official successor the head’s daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) is the one he really should be testing his skills against. And as she returns to her home and he to his, we’re suddenly back on Kar Wai Wong’s home turf: romantic yearning. While the two are clearly perfect for each other, life – in the form of a Japanese invasion – keeps on getting in the way.
The martial arts sequences are excellent; the film really goes into the different styles of martial arts, as well as outlining the rivalries between the various schools. Having Ip Man come out and say it was his wealthy upbringing that gave him the time to become an expert in Wing Chun is a nice touch of realism, while Wong really plunges into the romanticism of his locations, making this visually more like a fairytale for much of its length.
But the focus on the unrequited relationship feels like it’s selling Ip Man short (it’s definitely selling the action short, too – the film pretty much grinds to a halt outside of the battles). For a man who achieved so much and saw so many changes, defining him by a relationship that never happened, while romantic, leaves this feeling a little hollow.