“It’s not about style. It’s about you.”
disclaimer: if you haven’t seen the film, this post will give away scenes.
I’ll start with a confession. I realize its 2014 and this film came out six years ago. But up until three weeks back, I still pronounced it ‘I-P’ as in the letters ‘I’ ‘P’ Man, and am pretty certain I thought it was Sci-Fi. Maybe I had it confused with I Robot.
Then I was recommended the film with the warrant “You’ll fall in love with the character, I guarantee it.” So I resolved to see it but still had lingering doubts. I didn’t think I’d be taken by a martial arts film. Needless to say, I was well proven wrong.
Again the six-year factor is important because everyone has likely seen the film (and its sequel) by now, and praised the work, compared nuances, commended aesthetic, re-watched scenes. So I doubt I’ll have anything new to say to that effect—it’s already clear, the film has been made beautifully.
Instead I’d like to loop back to my personal reaction to the protagonist:
what. a. swell. guy!
First of all, he’s got impeccable manners. But the reason you’re bound to love the character is his humility. Being the best martial artist in all of Fo Shan, you can tell in the first few scenes that he really just refuses to acknowledge it, and that sets him apart from any other artist/instructor/intruder in the city.
To me one of the greatest scenes—in which my hands were glued in awe to their respective sides of my face—was the duel between Ip Man and the ten Japanese contenders. It made me think back to a dialogue from the duel early in the film against the aggressive invaders in Fo Shan: It’s not about style. It’s about you. There is a distinction in the way he fights in this later scene from before.
Now he’s found out his friend was beaten to death. Now he’s just seen a man shot for no reason whatsoever. Now he is angry. Now he sees the enemy in full clarity. Now he can’t stand it. And so while his moves retain usual order and principle, you can see a visible repetition in them. He’s damaged and hurt inside so you see that hurt come forth in his gestures as he rapidly beats each opponent down, one hand movement after the other. The scene depicts the emotional turmoil of the entire invaded region at the time.
And then he leaves without a grain of rice, but with the integrity that he is no traitor nor beggar, that he is “just a chinese man.” This statement is great too because right after that you see him go and pick up the sweet potato he left on the side. It’s a symbol of how despite being so skilled and revered for it, he sees himself as equal to any other coal worker, any other chinese man. It’s as though he’s communicating that what just happened had nothing to do with his talent, but all to do with the injustice of what happened to his friend, to his people. He isn’t above any of them, but he’s made it clear that he is of them.
Contrast is probably the oldest and most successful trick in the book. It’s like the wheel—no reason so far to reinvent it. So his humility is contrasted with the arrogance of the Japanese general. After deciding to duel Ip man himself, the general makes the statement:
‘I’ll win for sure. I’ll let all of China know that I won.’
While in the present, he’s talking about the future that hasn’t happened yet. Already the viewer knows that kind of mindset won’t gain him victory.
And finally as the last morning of the last duel rises, we are shown Ip Man’s thoughts, that we’ve been seeing in his actions all along:
“Although martial arts involve armed forces, Chinese Martial arts is Confucius in spirit. The virtue of Martial Arts is benevolence. You Japanese will never understand the principle of treating others as you would yourself because you abuse military power. You turn it into violence and oppress others. You don’t deserve to learn Chinese Martial arts.”
The virtue of Martial Arts is benevolence...I love that. It’s how time and time again I’ve understood martial arts, and it’s nice that different examples in popular culture—whether it’s Ip man, an 80s sitcom, or a Garfield & Friends episode (yes, really)—have all portrayed the essence of this skill the same way, that it is not to be misused. It really is about respect and benevolence. In the 10-contender scene, his retention of skill even in the distressed moment, gives the audience insight about the goodness and discipline that are necessary for mastering this skill.
Okay I said I wouldn’t but I just want to say two things about the aesthetic.
One: I have to exclaim about the camera work—it was just marvellous!
Two: there’s a style to this movie that could be interpreted as simplicity or even over-simplicity. There’s an obvious change in use of color in the beginning compared to post-invasion. The scenes are not lengthy or burdened with dialogue. The fight scenes are not a show for spectators but are purposed specifically in conjunction with the plot. In short, it’s quite easy to discern aesthetic devices used in the film. They haven’t been complicated.
But it really works well. The film’s been done so tightly, no wasted time, nothing lingers, all elements serve a purpose. It’s good design. But most of all, timing is most prominent. Everything has been timed in a precise and thoughtful manner whether it’s Ip Man’s son casually riding his cycle through the duel at the beginning, relaying his mother’s message, or whether its the way the camera pans sideways focused on his wife, as Ip Man is shot and falls over after the last duel.
If indeed the key to martial arts is timing, I think it’s rather brilliant that the essence of the subject itself has been used to master the film.