By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Ip Man (1893–1972) was a legendary Chinese marital artist whose students included a young Bruce Lee. Several films have been based on his amazing life. This newest one, “The Legend is Born: Ip Man,” is the first to offer an account — fictionalized, but derived loosely from real events — of his life as a youth and young adult.
The film is set in China in the early 20th century. It begins at the Wing Chun marital arts school presided over by Master Chan Wah-shun (played by legendary martial arts star Sammo Hung).
Ip Man (played as a young adult by Yu-Hang To) and his stepbrother Ip Tin Chi (Siu-Wong Fan) arrive together at the school, dropped off by their traveling businessman father. Both brothers work hard at mastering Wing Chun, encouraged by Master Chan and the master’s second-in-command Ng Chung-so (Biao Yuen).
In real life, Sammo Hung and Biao Yuen both have long, distinguished martial arts film careers behind them, both with and without their friend Jackie Chan, who studied with them at Hong Kong’s famous China Drama Academy. This is their first film together in some time, and their fighting technique exhibitions make for some of the film’s highlights.
Ip Man and Tin Chi keep each other company, and compete with each other to develop their skills.
They make a best friend in Lee Mei Wai, played by Rose Chan (no relation to the Chinese cabaret performer of that name), the best female student at the school.
As Ip Man, Yu-Hang To must navigate a complex web of friends, masters, loyalties, and his own feelings. He portrays a character that is always upbeat and kind-hearted, but willing to fight for the people and principles he holds sacred. He suffers setbacks and betrayals at times, but we always see the roots of his remarkable leadership through martial arts mastery and personal example.
Rose Chan, as Mei Wai, watches her two friends grow from silly-minded boys into young men, as she herself grows into a young woman. Her feelings for Ip Man and Tin Chi ripen and change, but she becomes torn between her emotions and her duties to the school.
Eventually, a second female, Cheung Wing-shing (played by Huang Yi), enters the already-complicated picture. She’s the daughter of a local official, and she can get anything that money can buy. But slowly, she begins to realize that she wants something beyond the reach of coins.
A crucial supporting part is played by Ip Chun, in real life the son of the actual Ip Man. Ip Chun is now 86 years old, but he demonstrates the fighting skill of a much younger man. He also served as a consultant to the film, making sure that the various fighting styles of the film were executed correctly.
The film’s action directors, Kuang Hsiung and assistant Leo Au-Yeung, play a crucial role in the drama. Each fight sequence begins simply and builds inexorably to a huge finish. And where some moves could have been executed by stunt players, Kwong-hung Chan’s camera work shows the actors clearly fighting for themselves much of the time.
The film is the story of people whose lives were martial arts, but it is not simply a martial arts film. It emerges as a rich and deep look at history, lineage, loyalties, and yes, even human feelings. ♦
“The Legend is Born: Ip Man” plays Sept. 17–18 and Sept. 24–25 at the Grand Illusion Cinema, 1403 N.E. 50th Street in Seattle’s University District. For prices and showtimes call 206-523-3935 or visit www.grandillusioncinema.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.