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Directed by Wilson Yip and written by Edmond Wong (who previously worked together on Dragon Tiger Gate), 2008's Ip Man, which beings just before the Sino Japanese war starts, tells the true life story of Ip Man (who would later mentor Bruce Lee, and who is played here by Donnie Yen), the grand master of Wing Chun and the finest martial artist in all of Fo Shan, China. Popular throughout the community for defending the town's honor against some northerners who would like to see Fo Shon's martial arts community brought down, he and his wife (Xiong Dai Lin) and son enjoy a good life together. All of this changes when the Japanese invade and then occupy Fo Shon and claim Ip Man's mansion as their headquarters. Forced to live in squalid conditions with the rest of the population, it isn't long before he's shoveling coal just to scrape together enough money to buy a bag of rice.
It soon comes to light that General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), the head of the occupying Japanese forces, is a big fan of Chinese martial arts. He routinely holds tournaments where Japanese and Chinese fighters square off against one another. When he sees Ip Man's skills in action, he hopes to convince him to train him and his troops, but the only ones Ip Man is willing to train are the Chinese factory workers employed by his friend Zhou Qing Quan (Simon Yam) who are routinely harassed by those aforementioned northerners in hopes that the Chinese people will defend themselves and rise up against their oppressors.
While this is an martial arts movie first and foremost, the frequent and excellent scenes of martial arts combat on display in the picture don't come at the cost of story or character development. Edmond Wong's script does a great job of letting us get to know Yen's character and to understand his obvious unrest and torment over certain events that lead up to the finale. To Yen's credit, he handles it perfectly, really emoting a lot more than we're used to seeing from him and proving that he is a much better actor than a lot of people are willing to give him credit for. His performance here is impressive on a physical level and as well as an emotional one, and he really stands out here. The quiet scenes he shares with his wife and son are touching if a bit on the melodramatic side (particularly towards the end) though not at all outside the realm of possibility, but the contemplative scenes he shares with Simon Yam's character are also just as well handled.
The martial arts sequences in the film are also top notch. With fight choreography handled by Sammo Hung, these scenes don't just serve as a vehicle for Yen to show off his fast moves and acrobatic tenacity but allow each one of the many combatants to arise in the picture to show what they're made of as well. Yen's fighting style, as fast as it looks sometimes, is almost minimalist here, with his Ip Man showing a sense of cunning and a calculating process when squaring off against his opponents. He stays calm in the face of danger and never loses his cool. It contrasts in interesting ways with far more aggressive styles shown by some of the people he finds himself fighting against, General Miura being the prime example. It's rather fascinating to watch as Ip Man's style goes from friendly sparring in which he 'fakes out' the moves that would send his opponent reeling to using the real thing on those who obviously deserve it.
While the film was obviously intended primarily for a Chinese audience (and therefore plays up to that countries nationalist pride), Yip's film doesn't wholly villainize every Japanese character nor does it glorify every Chinese man. The film plays in shades of grey rather than black and white, and the movie is all the better, and much more believable, for it. It might not be the most historically accurate film ever made (Wilson Yip has admitted so), but it doesn't need to be. It's a gripping historical drama with plenty of incredible fight scenes and the best performance we've seen yet from Donnie Yen. It's got loads of style and the substance to match. The movie won Best Film and Best Action Choreography at the Hong Kong Film Awards the year that it was released, and was nominated for ten more.
Well-Go USA presents Ip Man in an AVC encoded 1080p 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen high definition transfer that has been given some unusual color tinkering when compared to the Hong Kong Blu-ray that Universe released last year. Where that disc had a transfer that was periodically too garish and bright, this one goes the opposite route and the Well-Go release has been desaturated to the point where it almost looks black and white in spots. As to the quality of the image itself, it is sometimes remarkably detailed and crisp and other times soft and flat and devoid of much texture. Some slight edge enhancement is there, as is some slight digital scrubbing in certain scenes and if you look for compression artifacts you might see some of those as well. Neither of these factors is overpowering, but they are there and some will notice them. In the film's defense, it was made with a certain style in mind and so it shouldn't ever be the most colorful looking picture in the first place. It uses a very bleak color scheme, with a lot of grays and browns and blacks and dark blues, and parts of the film take on a very sepia toned appearance which we can probably assume was to give it a period feel. Contrast is good and skin tones are rendered fairly well and this definitely offers up more than standard definition can provide. It's not a perfect transfer, but it's good in spots if rather uneven in others.
Well-Go's Blu-ray offers up DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio tracks in Cantonese, Mandarin and English with optional subtitles offered in English only. Aside from a few typos here and there, the subtitles are done well and are easy enough to read. The English dub doesn't have as much punch as the Chinese language tracks do. The Cantonese track, the film's original language offering, sounds the best of the three though it should be noted that there are spots where the dialogue is much lower in the mix than the sound effects are. This might cause you to reach for the remote and adjust things as the movie plays out in front of you and it can be a bit irritating. Aside from that, there are frequent directional effects used throughout the film, and the score is spread out very nicely. The action scenes have a really strong weight to them, in that you'll feel the various kicks and punches on impact - this helps give the movie more ambience and atmosphere and makes it a more involving watch. Dialogue/sound effects level issue aside, the movie sounds very good here.
Well-Go has released Ip Man on Blu-ray and DVD in both standard single disc and collector's edition 2-disc releases. The release under review here is the two-disc Blu-ray. Along with the movie, the first disc contains The Making Of Ip Man (18:33, HD) which is, as you could probably gather, a documentary that allows the principal cast and crew members to discuss their experiences working on the film and to elaborate a bit on what went into trying to get the film right as far as period and history are concerned. The first disc also contains a small selection of Deleted Scenes (3:19, HD) which, although plagued by encoding quirks, are interesting to see if somewhat inessential compared to what made it into the picture. Rounding out the extras on the first disc are US and Chinese trailers for the feature (HD) and trailers for a few other Well-Go USA properties (HD).
The second disc in the set is a standard definition DVD. On it you'll find a collection of Interviews With The Director And The Cast totally just under eighty minutes in length. Director Wilson Yip, action director Sammo Hung, as well as actors Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Lam Ka-tung, and Fam Siu-wong all show up to talk about their characters and about working with one another on this project, one in which they understandably take quite a bit of pride in. There's a fair bit of emphasis given to some of the film's fight scenes as well as some of the themes that the story deals with. If you enjoyed the picture, these are worth checking out. Also included on this second disc is a Shooting Diary (5:27) which is a fly on the wall look at certain scenes being shot without any contextual dialogue, and three brief featurettes that touch three sets in the film - Cotton Mill, The Streets Of Fo Shan and Ip Man's Home. All of the extras are presented in Chinese with English subtitles.
Ip Man should appeal to history buffs and martial arts fans alike. It's a really well made film with an excellent lead performance from Donnie Yen and strong supporting efforts from the rest of the cast that combines martial arts action and compelling historical drama very effectively. Well-Go USA's transfer isn't going to win any awards and it does differ from the HK Blu-ray release but it's certainly watchable enough. While the two releases basically share the same extra features, those who have an interest in the film and didn't already go for one of the import releases can consider this one highly recommended, because the film really is excellent.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.