• Jason Tsang

Who played the better Ip Man?

Updated: Mar 2


Over the last ten years, we've seen an increasing interest in Wing Chun Kung Fu (also known as Ving Chun). Like a lot of martial arts, popular interest is usually created after watching films. Bruce Lee created interest in Chinese kung fu films, though these have been around since the early days on TV's. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made Wudang and Tai Chi popular. Wing Chun Kung Fu was made popular by Bruce Lee, one of Ip Man's students. It was his foundation style, but whilst well known, not as popular as it is today thanks to the Ip Man films.

Over a decade, banker, martial artist, local thinker Checkly Sin wanted to make a video to promote Wing Chun with the blessing of his master Ip Chun (Ip Man's oldest son). He hired Donnie Yen to be in it, and then it became a film. It became so successful, it became a film franchise. To date there are 4 films with Donnie Yen with a few spin offs. Donnie Yen, who previous said he doesn't do sequels, ended up being persuaded to do them. It was a good thing, because though he's been in many good action and martial arts films. Donnie Yen has never played a folk hero. Jet Li was famous for being Wong Fei-Hung, Fong Sai Yuk and Huo Yuanjia.

What was also confusing was that Wong Kar Wai wanted to make his own Ip Man film, The Grandmaster. Wong Kar Wai is famed for making art house films. So why a martial arts film now? Wong Kar Wai is his own man and you can expect his productions to be unique. Wong hired Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (whose been in virtually all his films). Doubts came because Tony Leung is not a martial artist. This actually didn't matter so much. The Grandmaster was not just about fighting. It has the usual bitter sweet taste of his other films. The deeper human emotions. Love, loss and preserving honour.

So which one is better? Well, this is a hard one. Personally, I enjoyed both. A lot of people prefer Donnie Yen because of the action. Wong Kar Wai was about a lot more, but it depends if you like art house. Story wise, The Donnie Yen films were not quite like the life of the real Ip Man. A lot of the story was made up. The screens with Bruce Lee weren't like how it was in real life. In the Donnie Yen films, he played Ip Man as the perfect Chinese husband. In reality, he never saw his wife again after he left for Hong Kong. Why it was, we will never know.

The Tony Leung film had a lot of style and substance. This was a Wong Kar Wai signature, which has continued since the 90's. The feel and the energy was real. Wong was aiming for the loftier meanings of Chinese martial arts. Fighting was important, but it was the story and the characters that mattered. Love and respect were very restrained. This is typical of traditional Chinese people. Tony Leung's Ip Man was more historically correct than Donnie Yen's. Tony Leung plays the period gentleman that was Ip Man very well. There were of similar frame and you can imagine that it was actually him. Donnie Yen is a trained martial artist, he is good at action shots and his skill on screen is top notch.

Neither interpretations of Ip Man fails and there is no right of wrong here. They both showed how life was at the time of the Japanese occupation and life in British colonial times. Ip Man came from a wealthy family and had a privilege upbringing. It is true he lost that during the Japanese occupation. He really did arrive in Hong Kong with very little.

When it comes to fighting on screen, it is different from real life. In real life, a fight is not a 5 minute long sequence, but would be over in seconds. If that was how films should be like, few would watch them. I think some critics take these matters too far. Enjoy them for what they are. So who was the better Ip Man? Well I leave it for you to decide. So you might wonder what has Ip Man got to do with Tai Chi? Nothing at all. But it is good to have a slight change of subject. Tai Chi is of course about changing.

Thanks for reading my blog.

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