Wong Fei-hung, the Ten Tigers, Lam Sai-Wing, the Chinese are not short on martial arts folk heroes by any stretch of the imagination. The very foundation of the Hong Kong film industry is built upon lionizing these figures, famous fighters, healers and teachers from both HK and the mainland. Legendary master Ip Man is the latest to be canonized by the Hong Kong film industry.
If you’re a student of the Chinese fighting arts, then chances are you’re familiar with Ip Man (also spelled as Yip Man) as Bruce Lee’s Wing Chun sifu. The 2008 film “Ip Man” detailed the master’s life changing a number of details for dramatic, and romantic, effect.
In the lionizing of a cult figure, there’s always going to be a degree of mythologizing. Wong Fei-hung may have used drunken boxing, for instance, but probably not to the same spectacular effect as Jackie Chan in the “Drunken Master” films. Likewise, “Ip Man” largely ignores details of the master’s opium addiction and financial difficulties in favor of celebrating his life as a martial artist against a backdrop of political strife.
The film gave rise to what seems to be a full movement built around the master. Just as Jet Li began starring as Wong Fei-hung in the “Once Upon a Time in China” films concurrently with Chan’s “Drunk Master 2”, the Donnie Yen starring “Ip Man” also inspired “The Legend is Born: Ip Man” starring Dennis To, and if martial arts film legend Wong Kar-wai can renew the recently expired rights to the project, we may be seeing his long-rumored “The Grand Master” entering production soon.
“Ip Man” proved to be a major success in China, leading to limited release in the west, a rarity for a martial arts film in today’s film market which no longer has room for smaller theaters like those where many of today’s western practitioners first discovered the eastern fighting arts. This success has of course led to two sequels going into production and release for audience consumption.
The consensus from the martial arts film community has generally been positive, and while “Ip Man” may not inspire the same degree of Kung Fu Fever that Ip Man’s most famous student sparked, any film that gets new students in the dojo is a welcome addition to the martial arts movie canon.