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Ip Man: The Legend is Born
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by Jay Seaver

"A worthy reboot/prequel, but... already?"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: If you think the reboot trend in American movies is insane, consider that Donnie Yen's first "Ip Man" movie came out in China in 2008, the sequel came out in 2010, and then even before that year was out, this prequel/restart of the franchise with "Dennis" To Yu-hang in the lead role is released (it may be more of a copycat, but an odd one in that it involves people who worked on the previous films). Like the previous films, this one combines incidents with Ip's life with a mostly fictional plot. Also like the previous films, there is enough really excellent action on-screen to make one forget about biographical accuracy.

The film starts in 1905, when a young Ip Man and his adopted brother Tin-chi are enrolled in the Wing Chun school of Chan Wah-shun (Sammo Hung), where they meet Lee Mei-wai, who almost immediately develops as big a crush on Man as Tin-chi has on her. After Wah-shun's death, their training is continued by Ng Chung-so (Yuen Biao), and in 1915, the now-grown Ip Man (To) goes to college in Hong Kong, where he meets Leung Bik (Ip Chun), a less prominent Wing Chun master who teaches him some unorthodox moves. When he returns home, Chung-so is insulted and the same triangle with Tin-chi ("Louis" Fan Siu-wong) and Mei-wai (Rose Chan) are still there, now with the deputy mayor's daughter, Cheung Wing-shing (Yi Huang) added to the mix. Plus, Japan is attempting to exert more influence on the area, mostly in the person of Yuko Kitano (Kenya Sawada), and Ip Man is framed for murder.

A quick look at Ip's Wikipedia entry indicates that while writer Erica Lee gets the contributions of his teachers right, much of the rest is fabricated. That is, in some ways, par for the course; Ip Man seems to be the new Wong Fei-hung in terms of how the movie industry is building him up as a folk hero by adding grand adventures to what was already an interesting life, and naturally ones which have him confronting evil foreigners. Apparently they've got to do something to have Ip Man fighting for real rather than sparring, but the big plot twist that enables it, while not coming out of nowhere, is handled in a fairly clumsy manner. Kind of a shame, because the relatively light story of the Ip brothers' romances and the question of whether martial arts styles should stay static or evolve are actually doing fairly well at carrying the movie, and it wouldn't be hard to use one to represent the other.

Indeed, watching the cast play those little dramas out is surprisingly fun - there's an unforced chemistry between Dennis To and Yi Huang, with Rose Chan and Louis Fan complementing them well. To captures the enthusiasm and curiosity of the young Ip Man and the sort of easygoing charm that can be mistaken for indifference (but shouldn't be). Fan makes for a good contrast, projecting a sort of solid citizen who becomes believably conflicted as the story continues, and his last scenes are surprisingly effective. Older hands like Lam Suet, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao add fine support. Ip Chun, the son of the real-life Ip Man who has served as a consultant on all three films, turns out ot be a great scene-stealer in his extended cameo.

And just as important for this sort of movie, the cast looks good in action. Dennis To is an expert not just in martial arts, but Wing Chun specifically, and both his sparring matches and more serious fights are great fun to watch, especially the contrast between the joy in the former and the dead-serious, harsher motions of the latter. Sammo Hung's part in the movie is brief, but it gives the audience the chance to see him and Yuen Biao spar blindfolded. And, hey, Yuen Biao is in this movie, and while he's a little bulkier and less acrobatic than he was in his prime (his action scenes were often just as good as classmates Hung and Jackie Chan's), it's great to see him in action again. To, Yuen, and Fan all get to throw down in the movie's climactic scene, and when a character mentions that there's one more thing for Ip to handle, it feels like a band has just come out for an encore after a great set.

There's still (at least) one more high-profile Ip Man feature on the way (Wong Kar-wai's long-gestating "The Grandmasters") before the Chinese and Hong Kong film industries find something new to exploit to exhaustion. In the meantime, this one falls square between the two Donnie Yen features, and being somewhere between "not bad at all" and "excellent" is a pretty good result for such a quick spin-off.

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originally posted: 07/19/11 03:31:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Herman Yau

Written by
  Erica Lee

  Dennis To Yue-Hong
  Louis Fan
  Yuen Biao
  Sammo Hung
  Ip Chun

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