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

This Island Ain’t Big Enough for the Two of Us: Marvin vs. Mifune

The ageless tale of survival in an unfit environment meets up with classic World War II drama in John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968), starring legendary international cinema tough guys, Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. This film stands out because there is a slight twist to the standard war movie plot. There are only two actors for the entire film and it all takes place miles away from battle.

What have you done with Wilson?

What have you done with Wilson?

The backdrop to this cool concept and character study is an uninhabited tropical island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Gruff screen mug, Lee Marvin (The Caine MutinyBad Day at Black Rock, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Dirty Dozen-1967, and many more man-movies), plays a nameless American pilot who has crash landed on the island, and the man from Japan, the explosive powerhouse that is Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, Duel at Keymaker’s Corner, Seven SamuraiThe Samurai trilogy, Throne of BloodYojimbo, and the sword-swinging list goes on), plays the marooned Japanese navy captain.

Alone and desperate, the two testosterone-fueled brutes wage their own personal WWII on the island. Control of the beach, drinkable water, food, and supplies are the objects of their game. The winner gets to survive a little while longer. Another odd thing about this movie is that since neither character speaks the other’s language the dialogue is very minimal and unnecessary for the telling of the story. The viewer doesn’t need to know English or Japanese in order to comprehend exactly what is going on or what each character is thinking.

Mr. Lee Marvin

Mr. Lee Marvin

John Boorman (Point BlankDeliveranceZardoz, and Excalibur) directs this suspenseful and intriguing journey into the minds of these two stubborn and starving characters with much complexity and humanity. Hell in the Pacific is much more than a war movie. It’s anthropology. It’s a study of clashing cultures and a fascinating survivalist story. The American pilot (Marvin) and the Japanese naval officer (Mifune) represent a sort of microcosm for the thoughts of America and Japan during this time in history. Distrust, ethnocentrism, anger, and fear are all featured prominently in this film and capture the mindset of the time, but Boorman puts it all down to two men who are miles away from civilization. Despite their removal from all of their cultural mandates that demand they behave certain ways toward their so-called enemies, the American pilot and Japanese naval officer maintain their preconceptions and paranoia. The added complexity of their impassable language barrier makes things even more difficult to overcome. The film does not remain in this limbo of hate and fear for its entirety however.

Mr. Toshiro Mifune

Mr. Toshiro Mifune

After smoke, fire, sticks, bullets, urine, and other means of sabotage and psychological torment to undo their opponents, Lee Marvin’s character is captured by Toshiro Mifune’s character, but Marvin escapes and batters up Mifune pretty good and makes him his prisoner. The whole scenario is odd because both characters know full well that it is not accepted to take prisoners in a survival situation like this and that they are supposed to kill all enemies, but something seems to stay their hands. Could it be the fear of being truly alone? For whatever reason, they keep each other alive.

Exasperated by the increasing unlikelihood of rescue, Marvin eventually sets Mifune free and shouts “Well, do something!” Mifune is about to run away or attack, but begins to realize that Marvin has given up being a soldier. Their only real enemies right now are the ocean and the jungle. The two develop an uneasy alliance and decide they need to take matters into their own hands and find a way off the island. The only other human for miles may be an enemy—according to their respective governments—but right now they are their only chances at survival. They build a raft (after many inarticulate arguments over how to construct it) and man it together, pass the breakers, and sail on into the ocean. The movie becomes dreamlike as the days dissolve into each other and waves pound against them all night and the sun scorches them all day. Amidst it all, the two battered men begin to show each other bits of human kindness. Marvin tries to flag down a passing US plane, but Mifune stops him for fear of being killed if Americans rescue them. That’s right! —there’s a war still on.

SPOILER ALERT: if you would like the rest of the film to be a surprise and if you haven’t seen it then stop here.

Who's got the conch, now?!

Who’s got the conch, now?!

The final act and finale are also peculiar to the war genre. The two men spot another island and make way toward it. When they discover a Japanese base a rush of memory of who they both are and where they come from floods back, but they have still cultivated something of a friendship together and this supersedes their soldier duties…for the moment.

Mifune runs out to announce their presence, telling Marvin to stay hidden, but Marvin spots some US equipment and quickly realizes the Americans have captured the base so he runs out screaming not to shoot and shouting that the Japanese soldier is his friend. The base, however, is completely deserted. They clean up and shave off their unkempt beards and recline by a makeshift fire, drink sake, and glance over months-old magazines. A bit tipsy, they begin laughing like old friends (reminds me of another cultural gap crossed via alcohol—the scene in Fiddler on the Roof where the Russians dance with the Jews in the bar). The happy moment is abruptly terminated, however, when a drunken Lee Marvin starts abrasively inquiring why the Japanese don’t believe in Jesus Christ and Toshiro Mifune discovers photographs of slaughtered Japanese soldiers next to advertisements and pictures of sexy women in an American magazine. Unable to communicate, the two men begin shouting and becoming increasingly angry with one another. The animal within is back! In the distance we hear aircraft cutting through the night sky and bombs being dropped, ever gaining. Each fed up, they stand and start to leave, bitter enemies once again, but a bomb is dropped right on the deserted base by a passing plane and they are killed together. Despite all their progress, they die foolishly like enemies.

Yeah, that Life of Pi guy was a wussy.

Yeah, that Life of Pi guy was a wussy.

A puzzling ending? A maddening ending? A cop-out ending? I’ve heard it called all three and more. Maybe it is a bit of those, but I think what’s more important is what we learned and not what the characters lost. The DVD release actually features an alternate ending where they are not bombed and they just gather their things and walk off in opposite directions. The DVD also features subtitles for those curious as to what Mifune is muttering through the whole movie (most of it being a combination of “shut up” and “white beard”).

After watching Hell in the Pacific several times and watching almost everyone’s disappointment with the ending I wonder why it still doesn’t bother me so much. It may not have been the best ending, but I got so much out of watching these two characters grow, and my heart was genuinely disturbed by how fragile it all was. I knew things could never be lastingly happy between these two erratic men. Hell in the Pacific is a social and cultural character study more than a war movie and when you take it as such I think it is a much more rewarding experience. . . On another interesting note, both Marvin and Mifune served in WWII (adds another fun dimension to it all, I think).

And you thought "Saving Private Ryan" had a downer ending.

And you thought “Saving Private Ryan” had a downer ending.

Why did I like it? Well, if it’s not already obvious, I am a fan of both Lee Marvin (ever since I saw The Dirty Dozen as a kid) and Toshiro Mifune (ever since I saw Seven Samurai and started getting into Kurosawa). These are two awesome, salty, manly actors with wonderful screen presence and power. Putting them together to fight and survive on a small island Lord of the Flies-style is great. Having them teach me about another time and different mindset is just the icing on the cake. It’s a pleasure watching these two guys on film and I think the story is more than worth their efforts. It’s smart and different and I love that. I am also a fan of war movies from the 50s and 60s so that adds a lot (some of my favorites being Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Paths of Glory, The Guns of Navarone, and The Devil’s Brigade). Hell in the Pacific easily makes my list of great must-see war movies. If you love classic war movies, Lee Marvin, Toshiro Mifune, or stories of survival than you really shouldn’t miss Hell in the Pacific. I strongly recommend it.

For another movie about WWII soldiers stuck on an island (but with vastly different themes), check out Gabriele Salvatores’ Mediterraneo (1991).

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 16, 2010.