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The Legend is Born: Ip Man -- Film Review

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SHANGHAI -- Semi-fictional biopics about Ip Man, Bruce Lee's teacher in the art of "Wing Chun" boxing, have become the most lucrative franchise among Hong Kong action films of recent years. "Ip Man" and "Ip Man 2," directed by Wilson Ip, were top grossing hits in China and HK. Another version by Wong Kar Wai is in progress. Herman Yau's "The Legend is Born -- Ip Man," which dwells on the teenage Ip's formative years of training, functions as a sort of prequel in the ongoing series.

While he piggybacks on the continuing buzz of the original and its sequel, "Ip Man 2," Yau does not merely ride the bandwagon. Instead, he delivers the real deal in the action department: rigorous, authentic fighting by physically formidable newcomer Dennis To and a stellar supporting cast. Even with a screwy espionage plot involving cartoonish Japanese villains, higher than expected ticket sales in Hong Kong (but not in China) proves that the audience got enough gratification from the action alone.

Well Go USA and Variance Films release the film in the U.S. beginning Oct. 1.

The portrait of Ip Man's young life is divided into three parts: in the Southern Chinese city of Foshan in 1905, when Ip is initiated into Chan Wah Shun's (Sammo Hung) school of Wing Chun as a boy; in colonial Hong Kong in 1915, when Ip proves his mettle in an anglicized boarding school; again in Foshan in 1919, when Ip falls in love and runs up against the Japanese's plot to create their sphere of influence in the city.

The film's best move is to trace Ip's character building through his relationships with three mentors, who enlighten him in different ways. It provides a platform for martial arts luminaries Hung, Yuen Biao and Ip Chun to show off various fighting styles of Wing Chun.

Though his screen time is brief, Hung has enormous presence as Master Chan, Ip's first teacher. In a demo-lesson where Chan and senior disciple Ng Chung So (Yuen) spar blind-folded, Hung and Yuen generate the chemistry only longtime screen partners have.

The biggest highlight is Ip's chance encounter with herbalist Leung Bik, the renegade son of Chan's master, Leung Jan. In two sequences where Leung teaches Ip the art of improvisation, the action choreography uses the tight spaces of the apothecary, and simple props like benches and bamboo clothes rods to imaginative effect, emphasizing the visual symmetry of the leg work -- which markedly contrasts the bias on fists in the routines practiced by Hung and Yuen.

That Leung is played by Ip Chun, son of the real Ip Man, lends authenticity to the proceedings. The octogenarian's amazing agility and comic timing (he has a flair for epigrams) act as an amusing foil for To who not only is the spitting image of young Donnie Yen (who starred as Ip Man in Wilson Yip's versions), but is wooden in his acting. To gives off his own aura when fighting though.

While giving a new spin to the images of Chan and Jan, both legendary persons in martial arts and movie worlds, the film echoes the ethics of lineage and sanctity of the master-disciple relationship in films of the '70s. Even Checkly Sin's action choreography harks back to wire-free, bare-fisted, high-kicking films directed by Lau Kar Leung in that era. It helps that editing is not hurried and allows one to see the moves clearly, especially in the finale that presents massive group fights without sense of disarray.

The screenplay is not terribly concerned about consistency and conflates complication for complexity. A case in point is Ip's adopted brother Tin-chi's (Louis Fan) conflicted identity and love interests, which seem carelessly written into the script to create melodrama. The Japanese conspiracy, which dominates the second half, is lame and laughably illogical. Japanese are portrayed like the Nazis in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Equally unlikely, but witty as pure cinema homage, is Ip's date with his future wife Wing Shing to see Murnau's "Nosferatu."

Something else that stands out is the costume design, which is sumptuous for an action film and shamelessly anachronistic. For instance, arch villainess Tanaka (Bernice Liu) looks like a crossed dressed version of the Green Hornet.

Venue: Shanghai International Film Festival
Sales: Mei Ah Entertainment Group Ltd.
Production: National Arts Film Production Ltd.
Cast: Dennis To, Crystal Huang, Louis Fan, Bernice Liu, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung, Ip Chun, Rose Chan
Director: Herman Yau
Screenwriter: Erica Li
Producers: Checkley Sin, Xu Wencai, Cherry Law
Director of photography: Chan Kwong Hung
Production designer: Leung Lok Man
Music: Mak Chun Hung
Costume designer: Bobo Ng
Editor: Chung Wai Chiu
No rating, 99 minutes