With the rousing success of Wilson Yip’s semi-biographical film about the Wing Chun kung fu master Ip Man, wing chun expert Checkley Sin produces this unofficial prequel to that very film that features exhilarating fight sequences despite a miniscule plot that delves into familiar territory.
In 1905 Foshan, Mr. Ip goes to the Wing Chun School run by Chan Wah-Shun. He asks Master Chan to teach his youngest son Man and adopted son Tin-Chi in the art of Wing Chun. Chan accepts the students and begins to train them. However, when Chan is stricken ill and passes away, his assistant Ng Chung-So takes over the school and teaches the Ip brothers in the art.
Ten years later, Ip Man and Ip Tin-Chi, along with female student Li Man-Wai have excelled in the art of Wing Chun. During a festival, Man meets Cheung Wing-Sing, the daughter of Foshan’s deputy mayor. The two begin to have feelings for each other but never have the chance to see each other, especially after Ip Man leaves to Hong Kong to begin his college studies. There, an altercation with a foreign student leads to Ip getting a reputation in town. That is, until he tests his skills against a pharmacist who is revealed to be Leung Bik, the son of Wing Chun expert Leung Jan. Bik explains to Ip Man that Wing Chun doesn’t necessarily have to have authenticity but be adapted with other styles.
Upon returning to Foshan, Ip Man learns that the Japanese has invaded Foshan. The Jing Wu Sports Federation finds itself under siege by Chairman Kitano, who donates money to the town yet moonlights as a child smuggler. He intends to smuggle children into Foshan with the hopes of potentially making them soldiers for the Japanese army. Ip Man learns that his adopted brother Tin-Chi somehow gets himself involved with the Japanese and is the new leader of the Sports Federation after the death of President Lee. When the Japanese want Tin-Chi to kill Ng Chung-So before letting him be free, Ip Man now must come to the rescue and face his onetime brother.
For those who are interested, Ip Man (1893-1972) was an expert in the art of Wing Chun kung fu. He is best known as the man who taught martial arts to a young teen named Bruce Lee. The 2008 film IP MAN starred Donnie Yen as Ip from the late 20’s to the 30’s, when the Japanese invaded. While a sequel was commissioned in 2010, this film is considered a “semi-autobiographical prequel” to the 2008 film yet not exactly related.
Playing the role of Ip Man here is Dennis To, a martial arts champion who has studied Wushu since the age of six and Wing Chun for six years under Checkley Sin, the producer of this film who was actually a protégé of the man himself. To appeared in the other Ip Man films and serves as martial arts consultant on this film. To does really well playing his great grandmaster. He possesses the looks of a potential star and yet has the martial arts skills to match. With the right promotion and projects, we could be looking at an action star on the rise.
The supporting cast does well in their roles, prominently Louis Fan as Ip Tin-Chi, who finds himself conflicted between loyalty to his brother and loyalty to the enemy. Yuen Biao shows he has not lost a step with his Wing Chun training as second senior Ng Chung-So, while in their cameo appearances, Sammo Hung and Ip Man’s son Ip Chun are great as first senior Chan Wah-Shun and third senior Leung Bik respectively. The short spar between Ip Chun and Dennis To is great to see as the 86-year old Chun still shows some lightning speed in him.
The Japanese villains are well played by Kenya Sawada and Bernice Liu. For Sawada, it is a welcome return after seeing him in the Hong Kong flicks Thunderbolt (1995) with Jackie Chan, Extreme Crisis (1998) with Julian Cheung, and Color of Pain (2000) opposite Terence Yin. Here, he plays a mastermind smuggler who uses money to get the loyalty of the Chinese government. As for Liu, it seems like she is beginning to get typecast as a villain. The Canadian-born Liu got to strut her evil side and fighting skills in 2010’s Bad Blood and The King of Fighters. Here, she does it again as Sawada’s daughter, who leads the Japanese army in Foshan and fights her way through her adversaries.
Choreographing the martial arts fights is veteran Tony Leung Siu-Hung, who helped Sammo Hung choreograph the fight scenes in IP MAN. Leung is truly one of the best in the business, staging each fight and using the right angles. Working with the likes of producer Checkley Sin, Dennis To, and other real-life Wing Chun exponents, the fights showcase authentic Wing Chun as well as other forms of martial arts from Japanese karate to judo. It is clear that Leung’s work can never be ignored.
The only flaw of the film comes in the overall story. As with Ip Man, the film has the classic rivalry of Chinese kung fu against Japanese karate. Here, the story devolves into that with a twist that ends up more surprising and brings a little redemption to the overall effort.
The Legend is Born: Ip Man is a pretty decent semi-biographical film about the Wing Chun master. If he decides to keep up, Dennis To could be the next big Hong Kong action star, following the likes of Nicholas Tse, Andy On, and Wu Jing.
WFG RATING: B
Emperor Motion Pictures presents a National Arts Films Productions Limited production in association with Zhjiang Hengdian World Studios Co. Ltd. Director: Herman Yau. Producers: Checkley Sin, Xu Wencai, and Cherry Law. Writers: Erica Li and Lee Sing; story by Checkley Sin. Cinematography: Joe Chan and Mandy Ngai. Editing: Azrael Chung.
Cast: Dennis To, Crystal Huang, Xu Jiao, Hins Cheung, Louis Fan, Yuen Biao, Yip Chun, Sammo Hung, Lam Suet, Bernice Liu, Kenya Sawada.