Netflix Instant Files: Ip Man 1 & 2

ip man poster

He went from an affluent position as one of the most respected men in his town to a pauper watching his house filled by an invading army, working as a grunt laborer just to underfeed his family.  He faced down an enemy general, and had to flee his hometown for his life.  He began a hopeful new life in a big city only to get in the middle of a hubristic turf war.  He heard his country, his traditions, and his own skills belittled by braying braggarts.  He stood up for himself and for his country.  His most famous pupil was Bruce Lee.  He was Ip Man.

fighting in the house

Rather than going out to his sizable garden, Ip Man keeps dueling people inside his rather fancy (and breakable) living room.

Or at least, he was director Wilson Yip and writer Edmond Wong’s version of Ip Man, in 2008’s Ip Man and 2010’s Ip Man 2.  Both movies are available on Netflix Instant, and they’re well worth the watch for any fans of martial arts, history, or just quality films.  The cinematic story only follows the details of the real Yip Kai-Man’s life insofar as he lived in the mid-20th century, had two sons, and he went on to train Bruce Lee.

In the first film, Ip Man is living in the town of Foshan in south China.  It’s the martial arts capital of the country; there are schools on every corner.  Ip Man is the most respected of all the martial artists living there.  He doesn’t take students, though he does apparently take challenges from anyone who walks in his door (much to the chagrin of his wife, who chafes both at the destruction of her expensive decor and the fact that Ip Man’s time with his young son is often interrupted for the constant duels).

This particular characterization of Ip Man falls in a common martial arts master mold: a super powerful fighter who prefers to live quietly, training for his own meditative reasons.  But he can be counted on to use his almost supernatural abilities when the weak are being oppressed.  The latter resonates especially for Ip Man: both the character in the film and the real-life person practiced Wing Chun, claiming it to be a martial art founded by a woman (though no definitive proof of that assertion has been discovered).

train ALL the people!

Ip Man trains all of the employees of a factory to stand up against marauders.

In Ip Man’s case, however, it takes rather a lot for him to rouse himself into standing up for others.  Both films follow a similar structure: Ip Man is living his life, minding his own business.  People come around to challenge him, and he duly fights them.  A foreign power comes into the country and begins oppressing the Chinese.  Ip Man then engages in a public match with the head of the invading army or loudest detractor against the Chinese, fighting for the honor of his country.

Even though they follow more or less the same structure, the first film feels a bit choppier than the second, the tone taking a while to establish itself.  Ip Man lives in a big, gorgeous house.  The small town in which he lives is a friendly community.  The largest problems facing our lead characters are petty.  Even the scenes are shot in warm lighting.  Until the Japanese invade.  Suddenly all the lighting is cool.  Rubble fills the streets.  People scavenge, but they still look out for each other, as best they can.

In the first film, the Japanese general overseeing the town is a martial arts fan.  Locals can earn a bag of rice if their Kung fu bests his soldiers’ Karate.  Ip Man is disgusted by this practice, only engaging in it to save a friend.  Later, he publicly fights the General to stand up for his town and country, and though he wins, he and his family must flee to the British-controlled Hong Kong for safety.

British boxing jerk and Ip Man

This guy is a ginormous jerk. Hit him in the face, Ip Man!

In Hong Kong (which is explored in the second film), Ip Man finally decides to open a martial arts academy.  He wants to train others in his philosophies (and also now he has rent to pay).  He’s bullied by the owners of other martial arts academies in town, but that all stops in the face of the racist condescension with which the Chinese are treated by the British constabulary.

The primary villain is a British boxer currently on tour.  The guy is so disgustingly arrogant and evil he might as well be sporting a curled mustache that he twirls as he delivers his lines.  He spits all over martial arts (which he refers to as Chinese boxing).  After a horrible “accident” in the ring, Ip Man calls out the boxer, to yet again publicly restore honor to his people.

Parts of these movies were hard for me to watch, because they weren’t just movies.  The grave atrocities committed during the Japanese invasion of China were very real; as was the abhorrent racism with which many British colonizers treated the Chinese (or really, anyone who wasn’t Western).  I was practically on my feet applauding for the soaring climactic scenes in each film.

grunt labor

Ip Man forced into practical servitude. They seriously might have been breaking up pieces of rock like a chain gang, or something.

Sure, some of the villains are cartoon-ish, but the sad fact is, their behavior isn’t that exaggerated from how things actually were.  I don’t care if it’s emotional manipulation or not (though I’m inclined to go with not, given that stuff like this actually did happen), I have rarely been so happy to see villains get the crap kicked out of them than I was when watching the Ip Man movies.

I haven’t mentioned the martial arts in the film, because it goes without saying that it’s all incredible.  I wouldn’t recommend it if it wasn’t.  Donnie Yen, the actor playing Ip Man, moves so fast I can hardly believe it’s real.  He also has a hilarious boss face when he’s fighting; he hardly twitches a facial muscle during the martial arts scenes, but it totally works for the character’s solemn approach to his discipline.

The bottom line for Ip Man, in his approach to martial arts and life as a whole, is respect.  He’s a student of a style he believes was founded by a woman.  He’ll teach anyone, but not for the wrong reasons.  He doesn’t want to teach people to be cool, or so they can put down others: he teaches so people can stand up for themselves or for the rights of others.  He doesn’t want to disparage the foreigners demeaning him, he merely wants to prove that all humans are deserving of the same initial respect.  We should be judged for our actions alone.

final battleThat bit is nothing new: tons of movies about a variety of subjects have that theme.  It’s an inspiring one.  I’m an idealist; I’ll never get tired of hearing that message, especially when it’s presented in such a well-done package.

The market might be a little over saturated with Ip Man projects right now; despite the fact that after the second film Yen said he was done playing the character, rumors are surfacing of a third movie with Yen yet again in the lead.  On top of that, Wong Kar Wai is releasing his own Ip Man biopic later this year, starring one of my favorite actors, Tony Leung.

I take that back: there are not too many Ip Man films.  Because as long as they keep being this great (and I have no doubts the Wong Kar Wai film will be as well), I’m happy with as many movies about Ip Man as filmmakers want to give us.  Bring them on.


Watch the Ip Man films on Netflix or purchase them on Amazon.