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Sunday, November 20, 2011

THE LEGEND IS BORN: IP MAN -- DVD review by porfle

Less a factual film biography than a rousingly ripping yarn, THE LEGEND IS BORN: IP MAN (2010) starts out stately and sober and ends with enough insane fists 'n' feet action to satisfy the most rabid chopsocky addicts.

Steeped in lavish early-1900s atmosphere, the film opens with young Ip Man and his brother Tin Chi, a Japanese street urchin adopted by Ip Man's father, being enrolled in the Wing Chun martial arts school run by master Chan Wah-shun (Sammo Hung) and his assistant Ng Chung-sok (Yuen Biao), who carries on after Chan Wah-shun's death.  The boys form a bond with female student Mei Wai that will later become a tragic love triangle as Tin Chi falls for Mai Wei, who pines desperately for Ip Man.  His heart will be stolen by the deputy mayor's daughter Cheung Wing-shing when they meet during a lantern festival and become an item.

Their meet-cute is followed by the film's first really good fight scene when they both leap to the defense of a girl being attacked by bullies.  Here, Ip Man displays the calm, restrained fighting style that defines his character throughout most of the story.  The first half of the film also features several other interesting clashes, as when Ip Man easily defeats a Westerner making anti-Chinese remarks and then becomes his friend.  Typically, Ip Man (as wonderfully played by Dennis To) manages to be humble and unassuming and yet smugly self-confident at the same time while easily besting his opponent.

His fascination with other styles is stoked when he encounters an old man, Leung Bik (Ip Man's real-life son Ip Chun), who teaches him some unheard-of variations of Wing Chun that infuriate the more traditional Ng Chung-sok.  The film's gentle humor surfaces during Ip Man and Leung Bik's first set-to in a store as they go at it while trying not to break any of the merchandise.  Demonstrating his newfound skills to the violently skeptical Ng Chung-sok upon his return from college leads to another raucous fight which, again, serves the story while adding to its excitement. 

Much of the middle part of the film is devoted to the chaste courtship of Ip Man and Wing-shing as the love triangle heats up, with Mei Wai finally giving in and marrying Tin Chi (a soulful and intense Fan Siu-wong).  Villainy enters the picture in the form of some Japanese gangsters led by Kitano, a smuggler with a mysterious scheme that involves infiltrating a martial arts association whose new chairman is Tin Chi.  Exactly what Kitano's smuggling and how much Tin Chi knows about it leads to high drama and tragedy, including a false murder accusation against Ip Man which lands him in prison. 

The mostly realistic fight scenes in the early part of THE LEGEND IS BORN: IP MAN give way in its final third to the iffy wirework, outlandish action, and superhuman feats common to more traditional martial arts flicks.  When the various plotlines converge at their peak and shocking secrets are finally revealed, the film erupts into searing drama and free-for-all battle action.  No longer simple challenges or exhibitions of skill, these are life-or-death clashes which resolve major plot points, thus conveying considerably more excitement and emotional resonance.

As Ng Chung-sok, Yuen Biao gets his chance to go nuts when he takes on an entire gang of Japanese opponents led by Kitano's daughter Yumi, who is played by the beautiful Bernice Liu in grand "Dragon Lady" style.  Their intensely dramatic encounter is then topped by the last-minute arrival of Ip Man, no longer the humble, unassuming person we've seen up till now but a fierce and breathtakingly skilled warrior bringing all of his abilities to bear.  His thrilling final showdown against a surprise opponent resolves the story in grand operatic fashion. 

Director Herman Yau seems to have seen a few Michael Bay movies in his time, although his more restrained style is neither as flamboyant nor as shameless in trying to yank our emotional strings.  I'd like to have seen more long takes and less rapid edits and flashy camerawork in the earlier scenes, which lessen the effectiveness of the fight choreography.  Later, though, as the fantasy level rises, his style becomes more suitable to the increasingly furious and over-the-top action. 

The DVD from Funimation (also available as a Blu-Ray/DVD combo) is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Cantonese and English 5.1 surround sound, and English subtitles.  Extras consist of a making-of featurette, the original trailer, and other Funimation trailers.

I doubt if very much of THE LEGEND IS BORN: IP MAN happened to the real Ip Man (who went on to train Bruce Lee, but that's a story for the inevitable sequel), but this is rousing, true-blue folk hero stuff.  Flawed but ambitious, it's definitely one of the better martial arts flicks I've seen in a long time.

Buy it at
Blu-Ray/DVD combo

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