Monday, November 4, 2013

How Many Ip Man Films Does It Take?

The title was fashioned after a popular commercial of my childhood which asked the rhetorical questions phrased as a literal one, "How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?"  How many Ip Man biopics does it take to saturate the market?

By my count, I have seen have seen three films based on Ip Man's life in the past few years.  I added two to that total in September alone.  I saw both films at the 4 Star.

The Grandmaster starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai & Zhang Ziyi; directed by Kar Wai Wong, Mandarin, Cantonese & Japanese with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website
Ip Man: The Final Fight starring Anthony Wong; directed by Herman Yau; Cantonese with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website

The Grandmaster was supposed to be a different kind of kung fu film.  Directed by Kar Wai Wong who is known for unhurried explorations of forbidden longing.  Tony Leung plays Ip Man in The Grandmaster.  His impossible love is Zhang Ziyi who plays the daughter of a kung fu rival.  After an impromptu match between the two (which Ip Man "loses"), it seems a romance is likely but WWII gets in the way.  Gong (Zhang) in the north is separated by the Japanese Army from Man in the south of of China.  We watch Gong confront her late father's protege over his collaboration with the Japanese.  The most memorable scene involves a duel between Gong and Ma San (Zhang Jin), in the snow, on a train platform, while a train speeds past the platform.  Suffering grievous injuries during the fight, Gong is unable to fight with Man in Hong Kong when the meet after the war.

Covering some ground I've seen before (particularly evocative of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Leung and Zhang's interplay mixes martial arts and romantic attraction.  Their skills and philosophies during the fight reveal their strength of character and only serves to intensify their appeal to each other.

The Grandmaster was edited down by 15 minutes from the international film festival version which probably detracted from the experience.  Frankly, writing nearly two months after seeing it, I remember the fight sequences more than the interaction between Leung and Zhang.  Both Leung and Zhang are movie stars of the highest order.  By that I mean, they have screen presence galore.  You can't take your eyes off them when they are on screen.

Ip Man: The Final Fight focuses on his later life in Hong Kong when age and money troubles are taking their toll on him.  Trying to maintain his dignity, Ip Man struggles with separation from his wife (and eventually widower status) and pecuniary matters such as having to teach kung fu to make a living.

In many ways, I preferred Ip Man: The Final Fight to The Grandmaster.  Ip Man was presented as more flawed in The Final Fight.  His students have their own lives - one is a corrupt cop, another fights in death matches for money, one of his female students resents Ip Man's girlfriend after his wife dies, etc.  Through it all, Ip Man tries to persevere with some measure of his honor intact.

Anthony Wong, whom I associate most with Johnny To films, plays Ip Man with a quiet reserve.   Zhou Chu-Chu as a nightclub singer/heroin addict/Ip Man's girl is memorable.

Both of these films were worthwhile and there is much to admire and enjoy about them.  I wish I had time to write more about them.


The 4 Star is hosting the annual Chinese American Film Festival from November 13 to 20.  Three of the films are being screen free of admission charge on November 12.  A few of the films look interesting.

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