If no one's going to do it, I might as well be the one. Here goes: I confirm that Ip Man is one of the best martial arts films of all time, and among the (very, very few) best Chinese films this year. Hands down.
But can Donnie Yen act?
We all know Donnie's not exactly known for acting prowess. His job is to kick butts in movies, and he's been doing a pretty good job since Iron Monkey, et al, and getting better since coming back from Hollywood and pairing up with Wilson Yip and Sammo Hung in the mercilessly punishing SPL. Very surprisingly in Ip Man, he shows off a side we've not seen much of - he fully embodies the character of the great wing chun master, striking a nice balance of humility, strength, dignity, confidence and compassion.
Yes, Donnie can definitely act, and while he's been doing a kind of mixed-discipline martial art form in his last few movies, here he uses wing chun with such grace and power. You know you're watching a good kungfu film when the moves of each character reflect the character's personality, and you can tell clearly the difference in each fighter's skills. Ip Man's flurries of punches, fast as lightning, are both delightful and amusing (eliciting laughter from the audience, but it's laughter from recognition and awe).
While the movie adopts the same kind of overwrought, nationalistic fervour in dealing with the Japanese occupation of China, which we've seen in so many Chinese movies before this, Ip Man uses it as the turning point in the lead character's life, events that tip the scale for him and finally give his martial arts skills a larger purpose and context. Ip Man, famously known as Bruce Lee's master, starts off as a person content with his life as a well-off family man who practises wing chun but isn't caught up in the race to set up, nor interested in setting up, a martial arts school in kungfu-mad Fo Shan. The start of the film is full of hilarious moments, showing off the master's playful side.
But when the war comes to Fo Shan, he is forced to give up his mansion and live a destitute life, working in a coal mine and struggling to feed his family.
Here, the character exemplifies a man who has not let the material decorations of his life fuel his pride, but instead lives an internal humility that allows him to easily fall from a respected wing chun master and a wealthy man to just another labourer in times of war, with his dignity completely intact. Yen manages to carry off that subtle dignity, and from then on, the film is entirely his, resting completely on his shoulders. This is also when the character realises there is a larger purpose for his martial arts, and he turns into a fearsome fighter, taking on 10 karate exponents in a scene very much inspired by Bruce Lee's Fists Of Fury and Jet Li's Fists Of Legend (which was also inspired by Fists Of Fury). Ip Man then becomes the embodiment of the classic hero - reluctant and hesitant, but resigned to the role all the same. He knows what he must do, because no one else can do it. And what a fantastic job Yen does, his performance controlled and precise, very much like his fight moves.
I dare venture to say, this is the age of Donnie Yen. With Ip Man, he has definitely and finally arrived in a huge way. Forget everything you thought you knew about him from Iron Monkey and all his other earlier works. This will be the film that defines him, not just as a martial artist, but also as an actor.