Right now on Netflix you have your choice of four “Ip men”: extra fancy, fancy, regular, and plain. Wong Kar Wai’s controversial US version of The Grandmaster would be the extra fancy version of the Ip Man story. In the film, the eternally youthful Tony Leung dons the mantle of Bruce Lee’s real life situ to tell the story of his rise to grandmaster of the southern schools of kung fu.
I’ve labeled the film the “extra fancy” version of Ip Man because of Wong Kar-Wai’s signature atmospheric and dreamlike visuals and the depth of his storytelling. While it may seem like a simple story of Ip Man (Tony Leung) recounting his past, there are subtleties in image and dialogue that attempt to give the movie’s scenes added emotional resonance. I say “attempt” because it doesn’t always work and some scenes just convolute the narrative.
In addition to the cinematography, Kar-Wai’s film is interesting because the title character, Ip Man, is in many ways just a voyeur to the traditional narrative of a child seeking to restore parental honor. Ip Man is nowhere to be seen in the climatical fight between Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the loyal daughter, and Ma San (Zhang Jin), the usurper of the family school.
To heighten the dramatic flare, it is Gong Er’s father, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), who enables Ma San’s rise to power. He selects Ma San solely because of his gender. Both Gong Yutian and Ma San tell Gong Er she does not matter or she is unable to pursue martial arts because she is a woman. This is important because you get the sense if she were properly trained and supported she would be a better fighter and leader than both Ma San and Ip Man.
Of the Ip Man stories on Netflix right now, The Grandmaster is my favorite because of it successfully blends traditional wire work kung fu fights with atmospheric dream-like visuals to tell a deeper philosophical martial arts story.
Donnie Yen’s Ip Man and its sequel Ip Man 2 are also visually beautiful and well told Ip Man stories. However, while the stories are good, thy lack the depth or The Grandmaster. They are my second favorite Ip Man stories on Netflix right now. I have grouped them under “fancy.” The story lacks the layers of The Grandmaster but its fight scenes wipe away the artful fog to reveal well-choreographed kung fu chaos.
My favorite fight scene is in Ip Man 2 is when Ip Man (Donnie Yen), dressed in a black eye mask and chauffeur’s uniform, beats a mob of assassins in the rain. It’s the scene that most often pops into my head when I think about Donnie Yen’s Ip Man movies. It’s a visually intense scene that playfully plays homage to Bruce Lee’s iconic introduction to American audiences. Unlike The Grandmaster, Ip Man and Ip Man 2 both dress up the traditional nationalistic storyline of China’s struggle against the invading Japanese in exciting choreography and sharp visuals. Donnie Yen’s Ip Man movies were directed by Wilson Yip (Jaynestars.com has an interesting bit of gossip about Ip Man 3).
Anthony Wong’s Ip Man: The Final Fight is the regular version of the Ip Man story. It is a step down from the dream-like and sharp visuals of the movies mentioned so far but stars Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang, and Anita Yuen (three Hong Kong movie staples from the 80s and 90s). The skills of these acting veterans help give The Final Fight the emotional weight missing from Ip Man and Ip Man 2. Final Fight is a simple movie that dispenses with the artsiness and headiness of Grandmaster to favor an unobscured, more slowly paced story of an aging Ip Man coping with health and financial problems.
The story is told through his son, Ip Chun (Zhang Songwen) though he does not actually appear until near the second half of the film. There is a lot of time devoted to the lives of Ip Man’s students outside of his Wing Chun school. The movie begins with Ip Chun introducing the audience to the students in his father’s school who will play a part in his story. The main villain in the movie is a local gang lord named “Dragon” (played by villain veteran, Hung Yan-Yan).
I would have preferred a more in-depth story about Ip Man (Anthony Wong) coping with his illness and the challenges of getting older. It wouldn’t have the headiness of The Grandmaster. Instead it would have a sentimental sort of earthiness that might also provide audiences with the challenges of living in Hong Kong in the early 50s. The fact that Ip Man’s son narrates the movie and the detail given to recreating Hong Kong in the 50s sets the stage for this sort of film.
Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao’s The Legend is Born: Ip Man is the plain version of the Ip Man story. It is directed by Herman Yau with Dennis To starring as Ip Man. However, just like I call the Ip Man movies directed by Wilson Yip Donnie Yen’s Ip Man movies, The Legend really belongs to Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, two of the famous Seven Little Fortunes. Legend also boasts an appearance by Ip Man’s real life son, Ip Chung. More than just a cameo, there is a nice fight scene between Ip Chung and Dennis To (as his father, Ip Man).
Legend is reminiscent of the 70s kung fu movies I watched dubbed on English on US television in the 80s. The plot is simplistic with an implausible surprise confession expressed by a defeated villain. In the case of Legend, the twist is interesting but comes out of nowhere, so instead of providing a culminating dramatic event, it comes off like lazy writing.