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

Iron Robot Transmatrix Short Circuit: Bride of the Judgment Day…the Musical

endhiran8A friend had randomly sent me a link to some wild scenes from a crazy Kollywood  movie (Indian film in Tamil rather than Hindi which would be Bollywood). Instantly smitten with the footage, we sought out the complete movie almost immediately and watched it in all of its absurd 3-hour long glory. This was no pensive and delicate Satyajit Ray tragedy epic. This was S. Shankar’s Endhiran(2010).

endhiran6If you saw Slumdog Millionaire and think you know Indian cinema, guess again. As my title playfully hints, Endhiran (aka Robot) is a bloated, mismatched hodge-podge of the Matrix movies, the Iron Man movies, the Terminator movies and whole mess of other American science-fiction action fantasy flicks. At the time it was the most expensive movie made in India and, although it’s pretty dumb, I found it to be more fun and more innovative than half of the films it was ripping off, and I don’t say this much (as I generally dislike the current gimmick of 3D) but I kinda wish Endiran was in 3D.

endhiran5Where to begin? Popular Indian actor, Rajinikanth, plays Dr. Vaseegaran, a brilliant scientist with good intentions (always), who creates an amazing humanoid robot (also played by Rajinikanth) named Chitti Babu after the famous Indian veena musician. The robot is fast, strong, powerful, super-smart, magnetic, charismatic, knows kung fu, and has the ability to seemingly ignore the laws of physics when the action calls for it. Chitti falls in love with Dr. Vaseegaran’s fiance, Sana (played by the gorgeous Aishwarya Rai), and so the jealous doctor destroys him and then the android’s battered parts find their way into the hands of the evil Dr. Bohra (Danny Denzongpa). Things go wrong and the new evil Chitti kidnaps Sana and makes hundreds of deadly powerful duplicates of himself. It is up to Dr. Vaseegaran to rescue Sana, stop Chitti, and set the world right again. It takes the film 3 hours to convey this plot.

endhiran10There are plenty of amusing subplots that happen along the way. Two bickering lab technicians who helped construct Chitti try to play tricks on him. Dr. Bohra tries to disgrace Dr. Vaseegaran. Chitti helps Sana cheat on her doctor’s exam (that actually worries me a little). Chitti has an in-depth conversation with a colony of mosquitoes to prove his love for Sana. He even rescues several people from a burning building (a la Spiderman) but things go wrong when he rescues one girl from the fire who happens to be naked and she runs out in front of a speeding bus to commit suicide out of shame. The little naked girl suicide really kinda shifted the mood of the film for me, but Chitti makes up for it by immediately delivering a baby! Another recurring theme is that Sana keeps getting near-raped by greasy dudes. Really though, all of these minor plot points and small character adventures take a back seat to the fun action sequences.

Endhiran2Rajinikanth does a fine job playing the naive doctor and the charming but rigid Chitti and then the evil Chitti and all his duplicates. At over 60 years old—in addition to having one of the biggest age differences between himself and his onscreen love interest since High Noon—he had to do a lot of running around for these dual roles (and then some). Aishwarya Rai is very lovely to look at and you can tell she seems to be having fun as the much sought-after damsel in distress. But the special effects! I must be honest that the special effects are actually pretty good (much better than a lot of Indian films I’ve seen), but that’s not what makes them so great: it is the imagination they use to choreograph the super-stylized action and effects. Srinivas Mohan, visual effects supervisor, had his work cut out for him as so many scenes are little more than huge kaleidoscopes of digital engineering. ILM and Stan Winston Studios also lent their effects expertise to the film and the results are quite impressive. There is an excellent car chase to rival Matrix Reloaded and a smashing sequence in which the evil Chitti duplicates join together to form a death ball, a giant snake, a drill, and a huge dude (among other things) that might give Matrix Revolutions a run its money. Machine guns, explosions, car chases, robots, sunglasses, talking mosquitos, and Aishwarya Rai are just a few reasons to check this film out.

endhiran4And what Bollywood/Kollywood film would be complete without some wild song and dance numbers? The film travels all over the world for the many zany music video sequences (why they seem to be singing about Mount Kilamanjaro whilst dancing in Machu Picchu is beyond me, but whatever). From an American point of view these sequences can seem like a huge waste of time, but I actually enjoyed them. It reminded me that Endhiran was from a different culture with different values than that of the land that brought us Transformers. It let me enjoy the poofy hair and unusual clothing even more. I liked listening to the music and watching all the wildly dressed extras and extravagant backgrounds. This movie was made to be a show and I’d say they succeeded. One note on all the musical numbers I have comes from cultural ignorance and it is this: if they hadn’t drastically changed the setting for every song I don’t think I would have been able to tell them apart.

endhiranI mentioned a few times earlier that this movie is 3 hours long. At first that number startled us. Having seen the trailer and a few clips I wasn’t sure how such a fluffy action movie could stand to go on for so long. Seven Samurai this was not. Having said that, I will further attest to the miracle of editing. Endhiran is so frenetically cut together that we were all bewildered when we realized that what felt like 15 minutes turned out to be an hour. The pacing of this freight train of a film is vigorous to say the least. It’s also a bit disorienting at times, but I’d say that just adds to the absurd experience of watching this thing. At the end—and it does end well—it felt more like 90 minutes and we found ourselves wanting even more mayhem. What started out as an endurance test for foreign oddity transmogrified into an extremely pleasurable afternoon of entertainment.

endhiran3Top 10 Reason to See Endhiran/Robot

1. Playing a quirky, charismatic, multi-faceted superhero at Rajinikanth’s age earns him mad Ron Perlman Hellboy points.

2. Aishwarya ain’t too shabby.

3. Despite the language barrier it’s got some great super-cool action movie lines.

4. If you’ve never seen a Kollywood/Bollywood movie this is as good a place as any to start.

5. They spent a lot of money on this garbage so help these guys out.

6. Chitti looks like an obscene amalgam of Johnny Cash, Jon Belushi, and Deep Roy. I liked that. Maybe you will too.

7. If you thought you’d seen it all, watch this to get humble again.

8. At times it approaches Kung Fu Hustle status for action ludicrousness.

9. It’s about as action-packed and insubstantial as Tony Jaa’s Ong bak: Muay Thai Warrior so you don’t have to think for 3 whole hours!

10. Robot death ball. Dot!

endhiran11Originally Published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 2, 2011