The Legend Is Born: Ip Man Blu-ray Review
Everybody Wing Chun tonight.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, November 23, 2011
The venerable old adage goes, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." But is there an adage for when success
comes right off the bat? Maybe something along the lines of, "If at first you succeed, just keep doing the same thing
over and over"? Of course nothing breeds repeated trips to well in the land of moviemaking like box office returns, and
the writing was on the silk screen when 2008's Ip Man
, a fictionalized biography of the martial arts master who
helped train Bruce Lee, catapulted to the Top 5 hits in Asian markets (it still resides in the Top 15 for films released that
year). Ip Man
ended up winning Best Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards, and it didn't take a rocket scientist
and/or martial arts expert to figure out a sequel would be in the offing. While Ip Man 2
didn't receive quite the
critical rapturous praise the first Ip Man
had, it was largely well regarded and once again raked in copious
dough at the box office. (You can read Martin Liebman's review of the first Ip Man here
and my review of Ip Man 2 here
). The Legend is Born: Ip Man
unrelated to the two Donnie Yen starrers, though it's interesting to note that the actor playing the young Ip Man in this
film, Dennis To, bears more than a slight resemblance to Yen, certainly no mere coincidence. Be that as it may, The
Legend is Born: Ip Man
takes us back to the early years of Ip Man's life, with a brief prelude showing Ip Man as a
child being introduced to the martial arts technique known as Wing Chun, a technique which he seems to have almost a
genetic propensity for mastering. After that introduction, we segue to Ip Man's life as a young adult as he leaves his
home of Foshan to continue his studies in Hong Kong. A somewhat convoluted romantic triangle (perhaps more
accurately a romantic rectangle) rears its ugly head as Ip Man continues to learn innovative new martial arts techniques
which will ultimately put him at loggerheads with adherents of a more orthodox style of Wing Chun.
The Legend is Born: Ip Man
may be the least factual of any of the three (so far) Ip Man "biographical" films, with
added, obviously fictionalized, characters and a story arc that makes Ip Man's family (at least with regard to an
interpolated adopted brother) part and parcel of the long simmering contentious relationship between China and Japan.
The whole Japanese-Chinese conflict, which of course plays out in the other Ip Man
films, is seen here in a
nascent form, but the Japanese are such cartoonish villains, almost buffoonish at times, that it makes their
machinations even less believable than they already appear.
The bulk of the film sets up Ip Man's indoctrination into traditional Wing Chun (including with a cameo by Sammo Hung,
as Man's first mentor in the technique), along with Man's "oath brother" (an adopted lad) named Tin-Chi (Fan Siu-
wong). Man and Tin-Chi become resident students at a Wing Chun academy where they soon bond with a young girl
there, Mei-Wai (Rose Chan Ka-Wun), who obviously has eyes for Man, though Tin-Chi just as obviously has eyes for
. That sets up the somewhat awkward central love triangle of the film which is further complicated when
Man meets a prominent young woman named Cheung (Huang Yi), a woman who immediately senses that Man is the,
well, man for her, bringing her into conflict with both her own family and Mei-Wai, who does everything in her power to
keep Cheung and Man from getting closer.
The odd thing about The Legend is Born: Ip Man
is that it takes virtually two thirds of its running time (which is
not all that long to begin with) before any of these supposed conflicts spill out into the final third of the film, when a
series of revelations creates a final act full of melodrama and frankly just silly at times character shifts. The best part of
is the slow, steady accretion of knowledge and different techniques which Man picks up, especially after
Man leaves Foshan and gets to Hong Kong, where he comes under the tutelage of an elder statesman of sorts (played
by the real life Ip Man's son, Ip Chun), who teaches Man a whole series of innovative moves that are not part of the
rather narrow definition of "traditional" Wing Chun.
Yau does perhaps a bit more substantial work eliciting some nice performances from his cast, especially To as Ip Man.
To obviously had enormous shoes to fill, as Donnie Yen has become so linked to the role, but the younger man does
quite well evoking Yen's performance style without aping it. While some of the other cast members are reduced to one
note characterizations, Yau manages to find a little nuance in the proceedings, especially after Man is falsely accused of
murder (just one of the many melodramatic episodes that play out as the film catapults toward its crazy-quilt
conclusion). The fight sequences are very well staged and have some great prop and wire work. There's nothing quite
as balletic as, say, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
or even in fact the first two Ip Man
films, but the final
bout, placing Ip Man against a coterie of ninja types, is exciting and brutal and helps to achieve some of the excitement
that the overall film lacks.
The Legend Is Born: Ip Man Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Ip Man has become such a legend that it's hard to separate fact from fiction, but I doubt even those much more acquainted
with the real life story of Ip Man than I am are going to argue that this film is by far the most fictionalized of the three
"biographical" outings that have been released thus far. The Legend is Born: Ip Man
also veers fairly often into
caricature, especially with regard to those evil Japanese, and the subplot involving Ip Man's adopted brother becomes
ludicrous by the film's end. Those caveats aside, this is an interesting, if not overly involving, film that does offer excellent
production design and a commanding lead performance from To. Yau is a director with good visual sense, if perhaps too
much reliance on gimmicks like unending crane shots. The two Yen Ip Man
features are still the go-to offerings for
supposed Ip Man biographical films, but this "early" Ip Man outing is an acceptable entertainment that certainly merits an
evening's rental if nothing more.