Everyone Was Kung Fu Fighting: the Story of Ip Man

For all the serious, highfalutin movies I watch, I do confess I have a weakness for the kung-fu flick. Action is fun to watch and as a guy it’s sometimes hard not to be fascinated by violence and destruction in movies. Watching a building collapse or a high speed car chase or dinosaurs fighting each other or Bruce Willis jumping off a roof with a fire-hose bungee cord is fun and exciting. Naturally the martial arts epic must enter one’s peripheries at some point. Ever since I saw a Jackie Chan marathon on TV as a kid I was hooked. The kung-fu movie gets a lot of flack sometimes for being fairly thin when it comes to plot, but the incredible athletes and personalities that have emerged from it are what draws us. Every move Bruce Lee does is astonishing to watch and there’s something eternally fascinating about using only your body as a weapon.

Still one of the best.

Still one of the best.

Recently, it seems, there has been a rebirth of kung-fu (for the west anyway). Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) reminded everybody that you could have a good mythical storyline alongside ballet-like violence. Then we got Jet Li in Zhang Yimou’s  Hero (2002) and Stephen Chow gave us an incredibly zany Looney Tunes-esque action comedy in Kun Fu Hustle (2004). These films were all wonderful (maybe more wuxia than traditional martial arts) and had great action and stories, but they were more stylistic and employed more wire-fu and special effects than the traditional martial arts films from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Out of Thailand came action star Tony Jaa in Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003). The stunts were real and gritty once more and the action was great, but the story was now missing again. I am happy to report that another martial arts epic has come about and puts back good old-fashioned fights with a really decent story. Wilson Yip’s Ip Man (2008) stars Donnie Yen (The Iron Monkey,  Shanghai Knights) as the legendary grandmaster of the Chinese martial arts technique known as Wing Chun, Yip Kai-man (1893-1972), and the man who would eventually train Bruce Lee and many others.

Donnie Yen.

Donnie Yen.

I confess that as a westerner my actual knowledge of the history and meanings behind all the various styles of kung-fu is pretty minute, and admittedly I do not recall actually hearing of Ip Man before this movie, but it definitely filled me in…even if the movie is a rather loose treatment on the real man’s life. It’s also insanely nationalistic, but you can’t have everything.

The film takes place in Foshan, China in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation. Ip Man (Yen) is a leisured aristocrat and well respected member of the community. He has a loving wife (who does not exactly support his martial arts practice) and a young son who he realizes he must spend more time with. The citizens of Foshan regard Ip Man as a quiet but deadly master of Wing Chun, but he would honestly rather not fight anybody (reminded me of John Wayne in The Quiet Man). A foreign bully from the north (played by Fan Siu-wong  of Riki-Oh: the Story of Ricky fame) arrives in town and, desiring to set up a martial arts club in Foshan, he viciously beats up every master in town save for Ip Man. The fight that follows is indeed wildly entertaining.

How embarrassing.

How embarrassing.

The story jumps ahead a few years after the town of Foshan is oppressed by Japanese occupation in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Ip Man has lost all of his possessions but maintains his dignity and lives in a rundown shack while his dedicated wife pawns everything to buy rice (kinda reminded me of Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago). To support his starving family he gets a job as a coolie shoveling coal in a filthy quarry. It is not long before a former Chinese friend has returned as the mouthpiece for the Japanese army and announces that the quarry workers can earn a bag of rice if they defeat Japanese karatekas for the amusement of General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), who is an obsessed karate master. Ip Man initially refuses but when a friend who volunteers never returns, he decides to go to defend the honor of his fallen brothers, avenge the death of countless Chinese, and reclaim the honor of Chinese martial arts.

Before entering the tournament, Ip Man witnesses another friend and kung-fu master doing battle on the mat surrounded by Japanese karatekas awaiting their turn to fight the Chinese workers. General Miura watches menacingly from the platform above. Ip Man then watches helplessly as his friend is shot through the head following the match (against Miura’s command). Ip Man requests to go next and further requests that he face not one but ten black-belts at once. If this fight does not pull you into the movie then nothing will. His prowess in Wing-Chun, although a bit rusty, is no match for the attacks of his enemies and he glides between them with grace and deadly accuracy as he systemically annihilates them all. He departs enraged and stoically defiant to the General’s questions (although the fearful translator disguises this fact).

The whole movie might be worth it if this was the only fight.

The whole movie might still be worth it if this was the only fight.

Back in the wounded town, Ip Man is asked to defend an old friend’s cotton mill from bandits (led by the northern bully whom Ip Man defeated in battle earlier in the movie) who are stealing their product and demanding money and threatening violence. He graciously agrees to teach the workers Wing-Chun and the audience gets a kung-fu training montage (yep, they still do ‘em). When the bandits return a big battle is ignited as the workers fight back and the bandits up the ante by bringing out axes, but Ip Man shows up and throws down real good with the thugs and chases them off.

Ip Man’s incredible abilities have earned him respect and fascination in the mind of General Miura. Miura seeks to bring Ip Man back for more tournaments, but Ip Man is forced to take his family and hide when he beats up the Japanese soldiers who come for him and attempt to rape his wife. Desperate to find him, the soldiers attack the cotton mill and force Ip Man to show himself. With the soldier he beat up ready to shoot him and General Miura threatening to allow him to be shot unless he trains his Japanese soldiers, Ip Man challenges the General to a public match: a challenge the General’s ego will not allow him to decline. For the final battle all of the stakes are raised to the umpteenth level. A nasty Japanese soldier threatens to kill Ip Man if he wins and his wife and child are forced to flee and all of the town is gathered for the public spectacle…you could not ask for more suspense. All of China’s morale and pride rest in the fists of Ip Man. It is assured to be a match to remember and it will ultimately bring national shame to the losing party.

And people wonder why all the Asian countries still harbor animosity toward Japan.

And people wonder why all the Asian countries still harbor animosity toward Japan.

Ip Man has all of the classic moves a good kung-fu movie should have and the fight scenes (choreographed by Spooky Encounters star Sammo Hung) are fantastic. The story builds and continues to create urgency, suspense, and danger up until the last scene.  It’s a compelling plot about a man who has had his world torn apart and the only thing left to do is stuff his peaceful demeanor and kick butt. Donnie Yen and the rest of the cast give fine performances and the cinematography is also top notch. The story takes its liberties with the real Ip Man’s life, but it is perfectly forgivable when you consider how much fun the movie is as a whole. The kung-fu action movie is back, folks.

The sequel, Ip Man 2 (2010), brings the cast back and features Sammo Hung as a cantankerous martial arts master in Hong Kong and sees Ip Man fighting a cocky, belligerent (and rather obnoxious) British boxer (reminded of Mr. T in Rocky III). Although the stakes are never quite as high, more fights seem bloated or forced, there’s an influx of what appears to be some wire-fu, and the western boxing is never as interesting to watch as the kung-fu business, it is a fun sequel about restoring national pride through the unifying power of martial arts. For fans of the martial arts epic, Ip Man might be exactly what you’ve been waiting for.

The real guy alongside his student, Bruce Lee.

The real guy alongside his student, Bruce Lee.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan 12, 2011

You’re an Odd Man, Charlie Bronson

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One of my favorite films of 2009 seems to have been missed by many mainstream audiences at the time. Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive) directs and Tom Hardy (Dark Knight Rises) stars in the British prison film and quasi-biopic based on the life of Charlie Bronson, Bronson (2009).

Prisoner.

Prisoner.

Actor

Actor

Now if you are like me (a.k.a. American), you are probably thinking of Death Wish (1974) star Charles Bronson (also in The Great Escape and Once Upon a Time in the West). I made the same mistake when I first heard the title.

The British Charles Bronson is infamous for being one of the most violent and most expensive prisoners in Great Britain. Born Michael Peterson, this flamboyant, mustachioed figure has become something of a celebrity from his jail cell. He was arrested in 1974 for robbing a post office and, although his original sentence was very short, he has built up his sentence through his violent, troublesome behavior in prison. He has been released a few times, but always has managed to wind up back on the inside. He is in prison today. He has spent the past 30 years in solitary confinement. He has written books about his experiences in prison and about how to keep in shape on a prison diet. Charlie Bronson, despite his propensity for violence, is a truly intriguing personality and the film, Bronson, is an immensely pleasurable romp through his brain.

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I first saw Bronson at a special screening at the wonderful Silent Movie Theater in Hollywood. I had no preconceptions going in. I didn’t know much about the film before I saw it. It was a fantastic surprise. Director, Refn, and star, Hardy, answered some questions about the film following the screening. Refn wanted the film to be more of a comment or treatise on art and the artist’s struggle. Refn saw the film more as a metaphorical biopic of himself. Tom Hardy, genuinely fascinated by the real man, said he was just a very weird person, but he has his principles. It was Hardy’s goal to show the real Bronson. Refn’s skill and attention to the craft and Hardy’s fascination with Bronson was channeled into a phenomenal performance inside of a highly energetic and stylistic movie.  Refn did not set out to make a straight biopic about the famous prisoner, or even make your ordinary prison movie. And he succeeds on both counts. Bronson is a lush, kinetic descent into the odd mind of one man who is searching for something elusive and in his search sort of discovers a piece of himself.

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The character of Charlie Bronson becomes a symbol for the artist’s journey. Dissatisfied and unwelcome in this confusing, ever-changing world, the extremely ambitious Bronson seeks to create his own reality within the system.

Violence is just another means of self-expression in this case. The movie takes place almost entirely inside the mind of Bronson. He stands alone on a stage in his head and recounts his story to the attentive and empathetic theater patrons of his imagination. He tells of his boyhood and the fights he would get into. He tells of his first incarceration and the wondrous freedom he discovered inside. He tells of his bare-knuckle boxing career and of the women he may have loved. He tells of his commitment—by the authorities who were confused with what to do with him—to a mental institution he did not particularly care for. He tells of the havoc he vengefully and desperately wreaked on his doctors and wardens. He pridefully tells of the mayhem and chaos he spread throughout the several prisons he was transferred to. He tells of his time in solitary confinement. And he tells of his foray into the world of art.

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Bronson flows like a series of alternatively violent and humorous montages set to some of the best compilation of tunes you are likely to find in a single movie. A heavily drugged Bronson struggling to leave a sea of dancing loonies to the Petshop Boys “It’s a Sin” is one of the most hilarious scenes ever (and slightly reminiscent of Twelve Monkeys). The whole movie is a show and it is centered around Charlie Bronson’s (Tom Hardy’s) dynamic performance. In one minute Bronson will be bone-crunching action and in the next minute, cutting comedy…but most of the time it’s a bit of both.

There is no place in the world for a troubled artist or for Charlie Bronson because the people in  charge see the world differently and relate to it differently. What is it that either entity truly desires? Who can put words to it? Bronson is never sure what he is looking for, but he keeps looking anyway. An artist or Charlie Bronson may never hammer out the specifics of their goals, but they will constantly try to change it all and make the world make sense to them by applying their own rules to it.

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Why see it? The music is great and imaginatively employed. The direction and pace are dynamic and beautifully stylized. The tempo and comedy are odd and disturbing (in a very good way). And Tom Hardy’s performance is one of the zaniest and most enjoyable performances I’ve seen in years. The film is an absolute delight. At the end of the day you don’t have to know what the film was really trying to say beneath its tough, rough and tumble exterior because it’s just a really fun movie. Refn has ironically called this “man movie” a rather “feminine film” because of the themes and the way the story is told. You will simply have to watch it and see for yourself.

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After the screening at the theater I had to shake Mr. Hardy’s hand and thank him for such a wonderful show. It was a privilege I have never had before (thanking the actors of the film following the movie) and I’m glad I had the opportunity to do so with Bronson. Go watch it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 29, 2010.