While it’s tempting to say that it’s the increased gimmickry of the fight scenes in Ip Man — actor/martial arts choreographer Donnie Yen/director Wilson Yip’s latest collaboration, screening at the New York Asian Film Festival — that make the film the most entertaining of their recent work together, that’s only partially true. Sure, it’s fun to watch Donnie Yen fight a big guy, then ten guys, then a bunch of guys with axes — a lot more fun than the technically impressive but ultimately numbing fights in SPL and Flash Point, too — but what really makes the film a perfect fit for Yen is the film’s nationalistic message.
Set just before World War 2, Ip Man is the story of the titular real-life martial arts master (Yen, of course) who apparently was not just the best martial artist in a city full of sifus but also much better than the haughty occupying Japanese soldiers. By this token, the film has a comic book logic with an obvious plot and a ham-fisted message — it feels like somebody’s idea of a joke that the film, which only cursorily values sportsmanship over talent, came out several months after the Beijing Olympics.
That kind of stuffy mandate seems to suit Yen’s normally charisma-free fighting style — although the fights here are choreographed with a dynamism generally lacking in his onscreen bouts and persona. Within the realm of contemporary martial arts epics, Ip Man is certainly good enough to keep you rooting for the good guy, especially during the last fight scene, where for a moment, it actually looks like Yen’s met his match.