DVD Review: The Legend is Born – Ip Man

Directed By Herman Yau
Starring To Yu Hang, Fan Siu Wong, Yuen Biao, Huang Yi and Sammo Hung



With the massive success surrounding Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s Ip Man films in their native China, it seemed inevitable that the producers would mine the property for a third outing. Oddly though, Herman Yau’s The Legend is Born: Ip Man is something of an unofficial prequel to the series, without the involvement of the star, director or studio behind the series proper. Naturally, those expecting a film on a par with Donnie Yen/Wilson Yip’s theatrical Ip Man film would do well to temper their expectations; The Legend is Born is a decent martial arts film that nonetheless suffers greatly by comparison to the films that inspired it.

Taking place in 1905, years before the Ip Man films, The Legend is Born explores the childhood beginnings of the real-life legend who would become a martial arts master and capture the spirits of the Chinese people (along with Bruce Lee, who he would one day mentor). Young Ip Man (To Yu Hang) and his adopted brother Tin Chi (Fan Siu Wong) are left under the tutelage of Master Wah Shun (Sammo Hung) and Brother Chung Sok (Yuen Biao) to learn the noble marital art of Wing Chun. After Ip Man goes away to study in Hong Kong, he meets Master Leung Bik (Ip Chun), an elderly pharmacist who teaches the boy a more versatile and powerful style of fighting. When he comes home intent on teaching his new-found ass-kicking skills to his fellow students, he’s forced to deal with Brother Chung Sok, who refuses any notion of altering the core Wing Chun style, while butting heads with the wealthy father of the girl he seeks to romance and shady Japanese diplomats who threaten to destroy the Foshan martial arts community.

The original Ip Man lent equal balance to the story of its hero, his family and students with the backdrop of wartime political upheaval as China came under brutal Japanese occupation. The Legend is Born attempts a similar combination, but struggles to maintain the same interest in its political strife sub-plot, partially because its lengthy scenes of trade discussions hardly offer the same imposing threat that the brutality of the Japanese army did, but also because here those scenes are really quite boring. While the Japanese threat ramps up in the third act, it’s rather campy and uneven in tone; as Ip Man does battle with an army of Japanese ninjas to rescue a kidnapped woman strung up in a rope net dangling from the roof of a warehouse, it’s certainly daft, energetic fun, but feels more like an episode of The Green Hornet than a straight-faced biopic.
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It’s an issue that extends to other facets of the film, too. The martial arts on display are often furious and impressive, but The Legend is Born has an odd tendency to take Ip Man’s Wing Chun moves and throw in over-the-top, cartoony, wire-assisted flourishes, flips and gravity-defying somersaults that would feel more at home in a magical Wuxia movie than with the serious biopic tone the film strives to cultivate. It seems especially unnecessary considering the natural talents of the martial artists gathered for the film – their skill is impressive enough without embellishment, and the more extreme wire work only seems goofy and distracting in practice here. That being said, the fights are frequent, fast-paced and satisfying, with a light, fun dose of Jackie Chan-esque slapstick during an early fairground market fight. Ip Man’s real-life son, Ip Chun makes a special appearance as Master Leung Bik, and gets to showcase his talents in a memorable pharmacy fight, while a lengthy and large-scale staff fight is one of the more intense and entertaining in the film.

To Yu Hang is certainly no Donnie Yen, but while he lacks the action hero’s dexterity as an actor or as such a skilled martial artist, he copes well enough in the role. He plays Ip Man much more stoic and emotionless than Donnie, but it fits the calm, quiet, scholarly vibe that the film shoots for with the character. Huang Yi makes an impression as romantic interest Wing Shing, and she gives a warm, strong performance that I preferred to Xiong Dai Lin’s colder, more distant outing as Ip Man’s wife in the previous two films. The romantic storyline is much more effective than expected, with a rather sweet and funny scene involving a date to see Nosferatu playing the two leads off against each other well. Unfortunately the rest of the cast are almost nonexistant, character-wise; the film sacrifices character and divides its time too thinly between sub-plots, meaning that by the time third act betrayals, twists and love triangles pop up they really have no impact. There’s plenty of fun to be had playing ‘Spot the previous Ip Man actors’ though, as a handful of actors return from the main movies in entirely different roles.
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Ultimately, an uneven tone, thinly-drawn characters and an unengaging political plot mean that The Lengend Is Born: Ip Man doesn’t really come close to the main Ip Man series, but Herman Yau’s film is still an enjoyable one well worth a look. Anyone expecting a film in line with the tone and quality of Wilson Yip’s outings will be massively disappointed, but as an occasionally daft comic book martial arts flick, The Legend is Born has a lot of fun up its sleeve, with an expansive flurry of energetic, well-choreographed fight scenes that are well worth the price of admission.


On the DVD:

The DVD packs only one special feature: a behind-the-scenes featurette. At about 14 minutes, it’s short, but relatively interesting and informative, with glimpses at the staging of fight scenes, stunts and the film’s copious wire work, along with numerous brief cast interviews. The DVD also comes with hardcoded English subtitles and 5.1 and 2.0 Chinese audio tracks.

Rating:




The Legend is Born – Ip Man is available to buy on DVD in the UK on 20th September 2010.
Click here to order the DVD from Amazon.co.uk.