“It’s not about style, it’s about you”
Ip Man is built upon ideas of honour, justice and dignity. It opens as a standard action-comedy, but quickly evolves into a period drama about tyranny and how courage can prevail. The film sets itself up lightheartedly; Ip Man is a master martial artist trying to settle down and pay more attention to his wife and young son, but he is constantly challenged to duels and implored to teach. The city in which he lives, Foshan, is known for its martial arts, and there are several schools dedicated to various styles. The first few scenes of the story are upbeat, and introduce us to a fun world of sportsmanship and playful rivalries.
But suddenly, there is the Japanese occupation of China (1937). We go from bright sunlit scenes of a vibrant city to a muted and overcast montage of atrocities being committed against the citizens of Foshan. The shift in tone is abrupt and jarring. Technically speaking, this could be considered a flaw, but the suddenness and ferocity of the impact serves the story well. Sometimes, it only takes a second for our lives to change completely. When Ip Man and his family lose their wealth, he is forced into back-breaking labour in the coal mine. Wisely, Ip Man does not wallow in self-pity, and the film doesn’t dwell on his circumstances, but on his attitude. He accepts his burden, and maintains a quiet dignity. However, when an old friend is beaten to death in a fight, Ip Man’s fighting spirit is re-awakened. We discover that a Japanese general (Muira) has been setting up fights between struggling Chinese and his Japanese soldiers. He is searching for the best of the Chinese fighters so that he can beat him in a duel, and prove his—and ultimately Japan’s—superiority.
The first fight between Ip Man and the Japanese soldiers is the most striking. In previous fights, Ip Man displays a playful dignity—it is about art and self-discipline. It is so unnerving, then, to behold the anger and pain in his eyes as he brutally cripples ten of the soldiers. It is heartbreaking to see the final soldier shake in fear before approaching Ip Man. He seems like an innocent young boy, desperately wanting to back out. After he is floored, and his face pounded repeated by Ip Man, the camera lingers on the blood on Ip Man’s knuckles. This is no longer meant to be fun—an innocence has been lost.
General Muira, having witnessed the spectacle of this one man defeating ten in less than a minute, knows he has met his match. He regards him with admiration and respect. There is even a subtle yet potent eroticism in his gaze as he beholds the dignified and powerful Ip Man. General Muira is, for me, the most fascinating character in the film. We can see in his actions that he is not a malicious man. He is determined to assert his authority, but he is not flippant with it. When his underling—a gun-happy and cruel man—shoots one of the chinese for having taken a bag of rice after losing a fight—the prize of rice is meant for the winners—General Muira scolds him, and offers rice to any who fight regardless of winning or losing. He is not a nice man, but it is easy to recognize his sense of honour. His intent is not to kill, but to challenge. However, he is blind to the desperation and righteous anger that fuels the men he has brought to challenge.
When Ip Man walks away from the first fight, Muira asks him for his name. Ip Man tells him, “I am just a Chinese man.” In this humble statement, his has not only maintained a profound dignity, but it also a jab at the general’s bloated sense of superiority. This scene is witnessed by a former friend of Ip Man, employed by Muira as an interpreter for these matches. When Ip Man later calls him a traitor because he is aiding in the humiliation of his fellow countrymen, this man cries out, in a desperate attempt to share Ip Man’s dignity: “I’m a Chinese man!” But it fails to have the same power as Ip Man’s bold statement. This man knows he is a traitor, and does not have the confidence to give weight to the sentiment – there is no dignity in it, only pathos and desperation.
General Muira challenges Ip Man to a duel, and as these things generally go, there is a much riding on this duel. This is a battle of wills, and it is not only a personal struggle between two men—each defining their own identity—but represents the conflict between two nations. So, as hundreds of Chinese watch as their representative goes to battle, there is also Ip Man’s wife and son, who have come to watch this grand fight as a gesture of support. This gesture carries much weight, as his wife realizes she has not been supportive of his passions, but dismissive and scornful. Knowing this may be his final fight, she is there as his partner – adding a profound intimacy to this final match.
I am beginning to realize that there is more to these martial arts films than just an appreciation of stylish choreography. The fights themselves often have metaphorical significance—a fighter’s style is an expression of his or her attitudes and values. Early in the film, Ip Man tells a challenger: “It’s not about style, it’s about you.” The line is deeply resonant, for it is also about the story itself, and all stories. Great narratives are about us. That’s why we invest in them. It’s also tremendously satisfying to watch someone open a can of whoopass!
Ip Man (2008)
Director: Wilson Yip
Writer: Edmond Wong
Stars: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Siu-Wong Fan