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

The Greatest Poker Face in Film

When hard-pressed to name my favorite comedies I invariably resort to naming several Marx Brothers movies (Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, etc.), Charlie Chaplin movies (The Gold Rush, The Kid, City Lights, etc.), and also several films of Buster Keaton.

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Born in Kansas in 1895, Buster Keaton, the Great Stone Face, was one of the most daring comedians to ever live. Keaton’s trademarks included a pork pie hat, flat shoes, and a countenance whose expression never changed. Some have called it an emotionless face, but that is a tragic mislabel as Keaton’s face conveyed a wildly versatile range of emotion. Although he never cracked a smile, Keaton exercised emotion through other means. Buster Keaton utilized his eyes and movements to express every subtle color on the emotional spectrum and he did it to great comic effect. What made Keaton so daring was not only these unique trademarks, but his extremely elaborate and sometimes highly dangerous stunts and complex comedic choreography.

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If Charlie Chaplin was the master of comic poetry and delivering a tear along with a smile, then Buster Keaton was the master of slapstick, physical comedy and technological inventiveness. I daresay only Jackie Chan (who himself was inspired by Keaton) comes close to the physical daring of the Great Stone Face. A true genius, he invented most of the stunts himself and performed them all himself too.

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As a film comedian of the 1920s and 30s, Keaton’s films followed the standard formula of the little, endearing underdog up against a big, dangerous world and sometimes there is a woman to be won (Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd also used this familiar formula). Keaton’s schtick, however, was to capitalize more on the stunts and technical wizardry. Like French magician and special effects pioneer, Georges Melies, Keaton understood the magic that the movies could create and used the camera to tell jokes and devised special effects as elaborate sight gags. It’s difficult to watch Sherlock, Jr. (1924), and not be amazed by the visual inventiveness and marvel at some of the pioneering camera tricks Keaton employed (the scene where he enters the movie screen and he stays the same although the film is constantly edited and altered behind him is still astonishing today). The pool playing scene still cracks me up even after seeing it twenty times.

Keaton’s manic ballet-like choreography did not merely limit itself to himself and performers, but to objects and industry as well. It wasn’t enough that he and the camera were dancing about; because in The General (1926) Keaton choreographed several actual locomotives along real train tracks. He makes the trains almost dance from track to track and around each bend. The results are nothing short of amazing and never less than hilarious. It’s a wildly ambitious historical wartime epic, but it’s a comedy! And it might just be the only Civil War movie where you actually root for the South. Both The General and Sherlock, Jr. are probably among the best comedies ever made.

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The stunt work in all of his films remains incredibly impressive, but perhaps (apart from The General and Sherlock, Jr.) Our Hospitality (1923), College (1927) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), feature some of his most iconic stunts. Our Hospitality has a death-defying vine swing to rescue the girl from the brink of a raging waterfall. College has Keaton attempting and failing (quite comically) at every single sport his campus offers and then (after much ridicule and in a last ditch effort to save the girl) he attempts again and excels with gusto at all the sports revealing his true athleticism and versatility as a performer. The storm sequence in the finale of Steamboat Bill, Jr. is fantastic, clever, and extremely funny. The stunts in that sequence represent some of his most famous, including the house-face falling and a well placed window. All of his features from Three Ages (1923) to The Navigator (1924) to Battling Butler (1926) and more are well worth a look. His work in the realm of short films was no less impressive and, unlike Chaplin whose characters generally stayed in familiar contemporary environments, Keaton would become a cowboy, a detective, a city slicker, or whatever and interact with history to tell a funny story.

After a few failed marriages and loss of creative control on his projects, Keaton deteriorated into alcoholism but continued to make screen appearances until his death in 1966. He appeared with Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin’s Limelight (1952); and in Around the World in 80 Days (1956) as a train conductor (fitting); an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1961; and he had a brief cameo in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). He even had a starring role in the surreal avant-garde piece Film (1965) from writer Samuel Beckett. The Roman era musical comedy starring Zero Mostel, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), would be Keaton’s last film. A fitting departure to be directed by the anarchically great Richard Lester (The Bed-Sitting Room, A Hard Day’s Night, Three Musketeers).

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Buster Keaton’s legacy and influence on film remains an important part of film history. The vaudevillian turned movie star contributed much to comedy, film, and filmmaking in his lifetime. If you haven’t seen any of this man’s work I encourage you to find some. It’s been nearly a century since his film debut but his films still retain their undeniable ability to entertain and delight.

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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August, 21, 2009.