Ip Man (or Yip Man as he is sometimes known) has traditionally been an elusive figure for Western audiences far more familiar with his most famous student Bruce Lee. But the legendary Kung Fu Grandmaster has recently become more popular beyond China thanks to the efforts of actor Donnie Yen and director Wilson Yip’s Ip Man series and Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster. More than just an action hero, Ip Man holds a lot of symbolic meaning for Chinese audiences, but how has his presence on the silver screen changed over the years?
The cinematic story of Ip Man began in 2008 with the introduction of Hong Kong actor Donnie Yen (most well-known at the time for Hero and Shanghai Knights), as the legendary Wing Chun teacher Grandmaster Ip Man in the film of the same name. Ip Man went on to become one of the biggest Chinese films of the last decade, smashing box office records in mainland China and Hong Kong and winning awards for Best Picture and Best Action Choreography at the 2009 Asian Film Awards. Nowadays, you’re hard pressed to find a Hong Kong film that doesn’t feature Donnie Yen.
The Ip Man franchise has made his name and catapulted Yen as far as the new Star Wars anthology film Rogue One, arguably the biggest film in the world this year. With other huge productions like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny coming out on Netflix it would be wise to assume that Western audiences can grow used to seeing Yen, in a similar fashion to the likes of Jackie Chan in the nineties or Bruce Lee in the eighties.
Whilst Yen is starting to make a global name for himself thanks to Ip Man, it’s notable that the first film in the franchise was released at the same time the Chinese market was slowly opening up to deals with Hollywood, allowing Western films to be screened locally to over a billion consumers. That deal is now working the other way as well, with East Asian blockbusters like the Ip Man franchise, Dragon Blade (Jackie Chan & John Cusack) and The Great Wall (Matt Damon & Andy Lau), attracting huge budgets and global audiences that would have been otherwise out of reach
The latest film, Ip Man 3, is obviously the third and potentially the final instalment in the franchise. It’s clearly benefited from the recent growth of Asian Cinema, attracting much wider distribution and more publicity than its predecessor. Ironically, considering how the collaboration between Eastern and Western cinema contributed to its success, director Wilson Yip’s series is essentially a Mainland-Chinese-pleasing series of patriotic Kung Fu blockbusters about kicking foreign ass.
Through the 3-film series we see Ip Man face off against the Japanese, British and Americans in a historical 1940s setting, but despite the faithful period trappings, all the stories are purely fictional and only feature a few elements of Yip Man’s actual life. The Ip Man franchise has always been, in a historical and contextual sense, inspired by the work of Bruce Lee in cinema whilst retelling the (mostly non-factual) life of his teacher. Global audiences may be more familiar with his most famous student Lee, but Ip Man is the original hero of the story. Bruce Lee is more like a ghost that haunts the franchise, influencing it only in spirit.
Early Bruce Lee films have a strong influence over the Ip Man franchise, with fight scenes drawing heavily from films such as Fist of Fury. Bruce Lee is the defining figure of Hong Kong film culture for audiences, walking the line between Hollywood grandeur whilst respecting the old guard of Chinese culture and the themes of Kung Fu. His admission into the series however is fleeting. The producers of Ip Man 2 has to scrap the original plot focusing upon Ip Man and his disciple, Bruce Lee, as they were unable to make an arrangement with his estate, and in the end Lee was only shown as a child. Ip Man 3 however offers extensive insights into Bruce Lee, showing him in a larger role played by Hong Kong actor and choreographer Danny Chan, who also bears a resemblance to the Kung Fu legend.
What then, is the attraction of the Ip Man series for audiences? There are tentative hints of Bruce Lee’s training, insight into his Kung Fu master, and a chance to fawn over an ever-impressive Donnie Yen, but Ip Man offers more than that. The film series is never about Ip Man, nor martial arts, instead it merely uses Ip Man as a fictional caricature to weave a narrative about change and the maintaining of your culture in response to it.
Ip Man embodies tradition and stability through his Kung Fu, an ancient and respected martial art losing importance and sway in the progressive modern world. This element of cultural change is clear in the first two films, from the Japanese army being aided by Ip Man’s own countrymen, to the British colonization of Hong Kong and the following cultural divide. Whilst Ip Man wins the fight against change in the first two films, audiences know that soon enough the fight will be lost as the timeline of the films moves on from pre-war China.
For a Chinese audience that has gone through more change in the past 40 years than most of us will ever know, the Ip Man series evokes imagery of the past. Chinese culture comes out on top of its ‘progressive’ enemies, whilst fighting with traditional means and maintaining its cultural values. For a foreign audience, the Ip Man film series is as much an education into the art of Wing Chun Kung Fu, as it is a historical essay about the loss and adaption of a culture to the modern age, surviving through several invasions and dramatic country changes.
Ip Man was never just about Martial Arts or bringing Wing Chun to a wider audience; it’s about the adaptation of an entire culture to the modern world, the respectful maintaining of tradition, and most of all being able to change whilst still retaining the core values of your culture and what makes you… well, you.
I can only end this on a quote from a Kung Fu legend himself, who summarises the core values of the Ip Man series succinctly.
“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend” – Bruce Lee