Sunday, August 18, 2013

Enter the Teacher to the Dragon of Martial Arts Films

Sammo Hung, left, and Donnie Yen as the hero in “Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster.”

Enter the Teacher to the Dragon of Martial Arts Films

NEARLY four decades after his death, Bruce Lee remains one of the most potent symbols of Hong Kong cinema’s golden age. The original crossover martial artist, a local child star turned celebrated creator of Jeet Kune Do, the art of the intercepting fist, Lee made only a handful of films after his international breakthrough. (He died in 1973 at the age of 32.) But kung fu classics like “Fist of Fury” (1972) and “Enter the Dragon” (1973) are the stuff of countless homages and imitations, and Lee’s life and career have been chronicled in dozens of books and films. While the Hong Kong martial arts drama has long been in decline, it’s only fitting that the latest stirrings of a revival are connected to Lee: the most popular kung fu screen hero of the moment is none other than Lee’s mentor, Ip Man.

Born in the southern Chinese city Foshan, Ip Man (1893-1972) settled in Hong Kong after the Communist takeover of 1949 and devoted his life to the practice and popularization of the Wing Chun fighting style, known for its explosive, close-range strikes. Until recently his cinematic afterlife has been confined to brief appearances in films about his most famous student, but a growing wave of Ip Man movies has elevated him to a folk hero in his own right.

First came Wilson Yip’s “Ip Man” (2008), a biopic set in the 1930s, before and during the Japanese occupation, with the action star Donnie Yen in the title role. (A big hit in Asia, it received a brief theatrical run in the United States last year.) Mr. Yen and Mr. Yip reteamed — along with the illustrious fight choreographer Sammo Hung — for “Ip Man 2,” which covers its hero’s years in 1950s Hong Kong, as he contends with rival instructors and thuggish British colonialists. The top-grossing local film in Hong Kong last year, “Ip Man 2,” opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Donnie Yen, center, in “Ip Man” (2008), directed by Wilson Yip.

Rushed into production on the heels of the first “Ip Man,” “The Legend Is Born — Ip Man,” directed by Herman Yau, is a prequel of sorts, focused on a teenage Ip. The filmmakers behind “Ip Man” and “Ip Man 2,” in taking on bite-size portions of their protagonist’s life, are leaving themselves open to a continuing franchise.

And Wong Kar-wai, perhaps the most revered and singular of Hong Kong auteurs, is finally shooting the Ip Man project that he has been developing for years. Titled “The Grandmasters” and featuring Mr. Wong’s regular collaborator Tony Leung in the lead role, it remains, as tends to be the case with Mr. Wong, shrouded in secrecy. (The fights are being choreographed by Yuen Wo-ping, known for his work on the “Matrix” trilogy and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”)

Mr. Yen said in an e-mail interview that the films have sparked interest in Ip Man’s biography and philosophy. “People now see Ip Man as a legendary master of his time,” Mr. Yen said, adding that the movies have done “a good job promoting Wing Chun to the world.”

Many a kung fu film is predicated on a contrast of fighting techniques — the saying “Northern leg, southern fist” broadly sums up the regional differences. To prepare for the role, Mr. Yen, who described himself as a mixed martial artist, lost 10 pounds and boned up on Wing Chun, a characteristic of which, he said, is “conquering the unyielding with the yielding.”

He spent hours late into the night practicing with a wooden dummy. Character research was inseparable from mastery of the discipline. “Using your bare fists with this traditional equipment is the best way to experience the character and his martial arts legacy,” Mr. Yen said.

Less a flesh-and-blood character than an allegorical abstraction, Mr. Yen and Mr. Yip’s Ip Man continues the long tradition of the kung fu master hero, exemplified by the much mythologized 19th-century physician and martial artist Wong Fei-hung (incarnated on screen by, among others, Jackie Chan and Jet Li). He also echoes the Bruce Lee persona in being an emblem of racial pride.

Master & Student
Born in San Francisco and raised in Hong Kong, Lee appeared on American television in the late ’60s (on “The Green Hornet” and “Batman”). But it was his Hong Kong productions of the early ’70s that ignited his global superstardom. There was often a chauvinistic edge to Lee’s self-appointed role of kung fu ambassador: his films were designed as showcases of his skill, and by extension, of the superiority of Chinese martial arts. (Still, he was hardly a purist, inventing his own camera-friendly style and often incorporating non-Chinese elements.) “Fist of Fury,” set in the early 20th century in the Shanghai International Settlement, pits Lee against a variety of colonialist adversaries; “Return of the Dragon” builds to a gladiatorial showdown with Chuck Norris in the Roman Colosseum.

Mr. Yen’s Ip Man is likewise compelled to demonstrate the dominance of his technique, facing down northern interlopers in “Ip Man” and a rival master of the Hung Ga school (played by Mr. Hung) in “Ip Man 2.” The main villains are caricatured foreigners: a glowering Japanese general and karate expert in the first film and a barbaric British boxing champion in the second.

The Ip Man films speak to the tricky economics and politics of post-hand-over Hong Kong cinema. For many the return of the British colony to Chinese rule in 1997 brought down the curtain on what was once one of the world’s scrappiest and most vibrant film industries.

The scholar David Bordwell points out in the updated edition of his landmark study “Planet Hong Kong” that the decline was already under way before 1997, thanks to a combination of factors that included piracy, a defection of talent, the iron grip of Hollywood and the ascendance of other Asian cinemas. The upshot: In the past decade Hong Kong cinema, an export business even in its prime, has grown more dependent on the financing power and large audiences of mainland China.

Li Cheuk-to, a film critic and the artistic director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, had a twofold explanation for the nationalist bent of the Ip Man films, which are Hong Kong-China co-productions. “On one hand it is an homage to, or an exploitation of, the Bruce Lee films,” Mr. Li said by e-mail. “On the other hand it is a calculated move to please the audience, especially the Chinese in the mainland market, where anti-Japanese and xenophobic sentiments are stronger than in Hong Kong.”

Ip Man demonstrating Wing Chun to Young Lee
Mr. Yip, the director of the films, acknowledged that their patriotic tenor might partly account for their appeal. Ip Man, he said, “survived a difficult period in his life, as did China, and still became one of the great masters in martial arts.”

But politics is ultimately secondary. As martial-arts throwdowns, the Ip Man movies live or die on the strength of their fight scenes, and the response from the kung fu cognoscenti has been mostly favorable. Mr. Li characterized the fights as a continuation of the “hard-hitting, dynamic yet intricate style” that Mr. Yip, Mr. Yen and Mr. Hung developed in their first collaboration, the crime thriller “Kill Zone” (2005).

In Hollywood brawls, digitally abetted staccato edits and shaky, off-center perspectives increasingly create a visceral impression of tumult at the expense of coherence (as in the Bourne and Batman movies). But even at their most kinetic the best Hong Kong movies generally ensure that a viewer is able to follow the action in an action sequence. Even in an age of computer-generated imagery, Mr. Li said, the priorities of Hong Kong genre cinema remain “intricate action choreography and a shot breakdown that shows each movement clearly.”

This visual legibility is a point of honor for the martial arts performer, a confirmation of his bona fides. Bruce Lee was often filmed in shots that framed him head to toe, the better to show off his moves. “New technologies should really only be used to enhance the visual quality, not to manipulate the entire fight choreography,” Mr. Yen said. He noted with pride that an especially demanding scene in “Ip Man 2,” in which he and Mr. Hung square off on a teetering table surrounded by upturned benches, took eight days to film.

For the kung fun fan sheer physical ability remains the greatest special effect. “To do an action as simple as standing on a wooden pole takes great skill,” Mr. Yip said. “No amount of technology can recreate that, even today.” — New York Times

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