Pre-World War II, Ip Man (Leung), southern China's best martial artist, bests northern master Gong Yutian in a bout, but loses a fight with his daughter, Gong Er (Zhang). In the 1950s, he sets up a school in Hong Kong, while Gong Er seeks revenge on Ma San, the pupil who murdered her father.
The exciting team of director Wong Kar Wai and fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping make this biopic of 20th-century martial arts master Ip Man (Tony Leung) — remembered as Bruce Lee’s teacher — beautiful and thrilling, though the elliptical biopic gets sidetracked away from a protagonist who seems dour and glum when not in action. Donnie Yen, Yu-hang To and Anthony Wong Chau-Sang have played Ip Man in a four-film series which offers a more conventional account of the boot-to-the-head grandmaster’s life, but this feels more than simply the arthouse shadow of the commercial blockbuster.
Ip Man has a hard journey from privileged, wealthy Wing Chun master to exiled teacher after losing his position during the Japanese Occupation and his family when he has to relocate to Hong Kong. However, his agony registers only fitfully, as the stony-faced hero accepts fate with resignation even as he wins almost every fight.
The real meat of the story comes from the secondary character of Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), who is obliged to give Ip Man a drubbing when her father cedes his title to the hero after a fight which is a test of skill rather than force. Though the possibility of a romance is raised — the fight of Ip Man and Gong Er is as much love scene as combat — it is dutifully set aside as the heroine becomes the traditional kung fu movie avenging angel to go after the wickedly moustached upstart who has supported the Japanese invaders and murdered her father.
Yuen’s mastery in staging fights matches Ip’s prowess in winning them, and Wong comes up with settings, situations and angles that highlight the action — an opening battle in the rain is breathtaking, topped only by a climactic one-on-one in which a white-furred Gong Er takes the battle to her enemy on a snowy station platform beside a puffing steam train.
It may not be much more than six of the most imaginatively staged and filmed fight scenes in the cinema, but thats almost certainly enough to recommend it.