In December of 2008, Hong Kong actor, Donnie Yen (“Hero”, “Shanghai Knights”, “SPL”) mesmerised cinema goers in China, Hong Kong and throughout south-east Asia with his on-screen portrayal of legendary Wing Chun patriarch, Grandmaster Ip Man in the film of the same name. Smashing box office records everywhere (over $100 million in China, more than $25 million in Hong Kong), ‘Ip Man’ went on to become one of the biggest Chinese films of the last 10 years, picking up “Best Picture” and “Best Action Choreography” awards in the recent ‘2009 Asian Film Festival’ along the way.
But how much of the film is fact, and how much of it is pure fiction? The storyline is indeed based on the true-life exploits of the late Grandmaster, and Wing Chun Kuen is represented extremely accurately, not having looked so good on film since “Prodigal Son” back in the early 80s. Missing are the usual special effects and “wire-fu” that have dominated Chinese action cinema in the past. Instead, we see fight sequences where the action is fast, furious and largely (in the case of the Wing Chun used by actor Donnie Yen), very realistically portrayed.
So, as far as the action is concerned, under the brilliant direction of veteran action star, Sammo Hung Kam-Bo (“Prodigal Son”, “SPL”, “Enter the Dragon”), the Wing Chun system looks great and the fight scenes are very memorable by virtue of their reality-based representation, even if there is a little of that “chop-socky” razzmatazz going on here and there. However, the historical accuracy of the film is another matter entirely.
There are three main aspects in the storyline of the film that are very definitely NOT a truthful reflection of the Grandmaster’s life in China at the time portrayed. Understandably, the screenwriters have used a certain amount of dramatic licence to increase the impact and entertainment value of the film, but in doing so, have distorted the facts considerably. For those who have not yet seen the film, be warned that reading further will reveal aspects of the plot that you may prefer not to know.
In the film, we see Ip Man teaching the entire working population of the cotton mill owned by his friend, Chow Ching Chuen. In reality, Ip Man taught a very small group of students, mostly the children of some of the mill workers, after hours and in secret, at the rear of the mill for a period of around one year. He did not charge fees for this tuition and it is said that there were in total only six students who completed this training, two of whom, Lun Gai and Gwok Fu, are still alive today. The other four did not go on to teach the art and the best of them, Chow Guang Yiu, the son of the mill owner, gave up martial arts altogether and went into commerce, having never passed on his Wing Chun skills.
How Ip Man was employed during the Japanese Occupation years, after he lost his home and fortune, is another stretch of the imagination. In the film, we see him working in a coal mine, something that he did not do. In reality, he was for quite some time a police officer who was very well respected in his community and involved in several daring exploits. One of these exploits has been adapted in the screenplay, whereby in the film Ip Man breaks the handgun of the police officer. This actually happened, only in real life, the gun was being held by a bandit and Ip Man was the police officer.
Finally, and most importantly, the final battle between Ip Man and General Miura, the Japanese military commander, did not take place, nor was he shot as we see at the climax of that fight scene. It is true that the Japanese approached him several times to instruct members of the occupying army, having learnt that for a brief time, Ip Man had actually instructed troops in the Nationalist Army (in fact, one of the main reasons why he eventually fled China, fearing a reprisal from the victorious Communist government for that, and the fact that he had been both a police officer and a former member of the wealthy land-owning class). However, on each occasion that he was asked, Ip Man declined to take up the post.
Despite these seemingly serious inconsistencies, ‘Ip Man’ presents an otherwise very accurate portrayal of the man and of his life in China, particularly in terms of his adherence to traditional social customs and courtesies, his easy-going manner and relatively ego-less personality, and his willingness to come to the aid of others, all things that he was well known for in his lifetime. One glaring oversight is the fact that he was a father to two sons and two daughters during the time shown in the film, but we are only ever shown his eldest son, Ip Chun, portrayed as a very young child.
We need to remember that the film is, first and foremost, a work of art meant for entertainment, and entertain us it certainly does. It also paves the way for what now looks like becoming a trilogy of films, with the upcoming instalments set to tell the life and times of Ip Man after he arrived in Hong Kong, teaching Wing Chun to the general public for the first time. And it will tell of the most famous students that gained instruction from him at that time, such as his very first student in Hong Kong, the late Leung Sheung, the legendary ‘Gong Sau Wong’ (“King of Challenge Fights”), Wong Shun Leung, and of course, the celebrated martial arts superstar, Bruce Lee.