Edit: Wow, thanks for featuring me on the front page! Its a real honor and I hope to continue refining my "Just Watched" series to be worthy of it!
It may amount to a bit of kung fu sacrilege, but I never watched Ip Man before today. Still fresh and riding high off of the movie, I'd like to revisit some thoughts I had and deconstruct certain ideas. Most of my thoughts about the film can be broken down to three categories: The movie's Formula, Fights and Ideas.
Coming in with no prior knowledge of the movie, it came as a shock when the movie switched to a political drama a third of the way through. During the opening third, the film was more in line with a traditional kung fu plots. The eminently strong master is constantly challenged by local rivals until an even stronger threat appears endangering the status quo. Its interesting that the film segments its threat into two separate focus points, one being the bandit Jin Shan Zhao and the other being the entire occupying Japanese force (represented primarily by General Miura). They managed the somewhat weave together the two villain plots by having Jin's defeat at the Cotton factory likely leading to the Japanese finding out Ip Man's whereabouts. However, it still seemed to be two entirely different plots from a more traditional martial arts movie and a political war drama.
The plot still did follow a typical martial arts movie story line, where the hero takes all comers and solves most problems with his fists. Even in a world where the entire army has guns, the guns are rarely used and proven ineffective against the protagonist. Also typical in a martial arts movie, is that people close to the hero are either killed or beaten. I was waiting the entire movie for something bad to happen to Ip Man's wife and child but thankfully it never came to that (although they implied something bad was going to happen before Ip Man beat those guys to death). Instead the army chose to kill close friends of Ip Man then beat and subjugate his fellow villagers.
Where the film shined was in weaving together seemingly isolated incidents and plot lines into one coherent story line. Even though the movie felt a bit long and could have cut a few scenes, it still had a nice flow between action scenes. They did a decent job making you care about the characters and portraying them in a semi-realistic way.
The portrayal of Wing Chun is extremely commendable. The things I noticed most were the rapid fist strikes (like a boxer hitting a speed bag) and using the arm to deflect attacks. The sound design was great because they added more "hits" than that actual amount of punches on film making it seem like he was punching faster than your eyes could follow.
There was a nice distinct feeling from the sparring scenes and when Ip Man was out for blood. During the opening spars against Jin and Master Liao Ip Man always seemed to be in control of the fights. He playfully and effectively handled those fights without causing too much harm. This is in contrast to later parts of the film where Ip Man is brutally beating people, breaking limbs and perhaps even killing his opponents. While the fights didn't reach The Protector levels of violence I still enjoyed the overall choreography, despite some of the more ridiculous wire work.
The picture drew a little too heavily from established archetypes. The occupying force was certainly portrayed as an atrocity committing poverty spreading wave sweeping over the city. I actually felt the villain portrayal was a bit boring and stereotypical at parts, but they wanted those Japanese to be no possible doubt, black and white EVIL. In this way the audience doesn't feel bad when Ip Man literally beats most of the Japanese army (which panders to a niche segment of Chinese nationalism).
The occupying forces were lead by the honorable yet arrogant General Miura who had evil sniveling cronies under him. Miura was in a sense the stereotypical Japanese samurai more concerned with honor and his image than actually winning a war. Miura went so far to almost shooting his own henchman and letting himself get beaten alive in the film's climax. He also highly valued strength which contributed to his downfall. The importance placed on the shopworn Japanese ideal of "Honor above all else" permeated all aspects of the Japanese characters where the henchmen followed orders out of duty and did not outright kill Ip Man despite the obvious benefits of doing so.
The most intriguing idea in the film for myself, was the exploration of the futility of martial arts in the face of armed conflict. During the second part of the film where Fo Shan is the dilapidated ruin of a city and Ip Man is powerless to affect any meaningful change. Ip Man is only one man, he cannot repel an entire army of guns by himself nor can his fighting skills feed his family. Noticing his new station in life, he questions the validity of his abilities and his place in the world. In my own mind I questioned, would Ip Man have been better off as a doctor whose services could help people rather than bringing harm or any kind of trade which would put food on the table. I was pleased the film briefly touched on this, but saw the necessity of making Ip Man the inspiration for rebellion against the Japanese.
Another section I wanted to explore but didn't have full evidence is the parallels between Ip Man and the traditional "hero's journey". I have a (admittedly vague) recollection of the timeline of hero events. A somewhat imperfect hero, his call to action, Loss/Descent into darkness, then redemption. The most striking element for me is the visual transformation, where the film transitions into "Darkness" via the decrepit conditions brought about by the Japanese occupation. It is both literal and supposed, as the world is completely alien from what Ip Man knew to be true. He is forced to slowly accept reality (via pawning his watch, getting a job, death of friends) and the process entirely breaks him. Ip Man doesn't fit into the full Wikipedia definition of a Hero's Journey but it certainly draws from these elements.
In any case, thanks for reading or skimming pieces of this lengthy blog. Feel free to leave what you thought of Ip Man or anything discussed above.