Ip Man was one of the most famous martial artists in China, but this is the first film about him that’s ever been made. The man lived a long and crazy life but is perhaps most famous for being Bruce Lee’s master. He was the first Wing Chun practicioner to teach the art openly.

A biopic on his life was originally conceived way back in 1998, with Donnie Yen set to star as Ip Man and Stephen Chow playing Bruce Lee. It’s been a long time coming (and Bruce Lee didn’t make it into the film), but it was definitely worth it. The film pulled in gigantic amounts of cash at the box office last year and won Best Picture and Best Action Choreography at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

The film starts off in the 1930s. Ip Man is living in Foshan (a town filled with martial arts dojos) with his wife and son. Although he’s an expert in Wing Chun he doesn’t teach anybody, instead spending most of his time socializing with his friends and sparring with anyone who wants to get humiliated. He’s a ridiculously good martial artist but he doesn’t flaunt it, and is indeed one of the most well regarded people in the village. They like him even more when he beats up a group of thugs that come looking to challenge all the local martial arts masters.

Soon after 1937 brings the Japanese invasion, and everyone’s starving and looking for work. Ip Man manages to get a job shoveling coal to feed his family, but soon finds another way to get some rice. It seems that a Japanese general is giving a bag of rice to anyone who can beat one of his black belts, and most of the Chinese workers are game for a try. It’s not until Ip Man sees that his friends are being killed that he decides to fight back for real, and people get brutalized.

One thing is remarkable about this film, and that’s the fights. Director Wilson Yip (SPL, Flash Point, and my personal fave- Bio Zombie) is certainly no stranger to a good action flick, and he’s helped here by fight choreography by the almighty Sammo Hung. The fights are shot incredibly well- you’ll see every single punch and kick and won’t be able to restrain yourself from screaming out at how goddamn amazing some of the work is. Donnie Yen trained a helluva lot for this role and it shows.

The story usually takes the backburner in these kind of films, but you’d expect it to be a little more solid here. You’d be wrong. Donnie Yen is apparently doing a great impression of Ip Man, and his restrained, likeable presense definitely makes you root for the character.

But Ip Man’s eldest son and a few of his students were involved in the production, so be aware that you’re not getting anything close to a reasonable look at this man’s life. It’s standard for a biopic, but man, you expect Ip Man to start walking on water and healing cripples by the end. The man can just do no wrong. Unlike the real guy he doesn’t abandon his family to run to Hong Kong when things get bad, instead telling his wife that he’ll be happy as long as they’re together, and looking out for his son as much as he can. The melodrama gets laid on so thick you could punch it in the face, and Ip Man apparently was the only reason the Chinese had any hope during the Japanese occupation, the one who taught them they could fight back.

That part of the film is perhaps the most overdone. As is usual in Chinese martial arts films the Japanese are inherently evil, with one character in particular just seeming to like murdering people for no reason. They make for good bad guys but this has been done to death countless times before.

Another big problem is what a letdown the final fight is. After all the buildup you’re given a very quick, very fast ending that’s not nearly as satisfying as you’d hoped, especially considering how amazing the previous fight sequences were. But then again, that’s what the sequel’s for…

Still, martial arts nuts can do no wrong here. The film absolutely delivers in the action department, but what else would you expect from Donnie Yen?

8.5 out of 10

The last screening of Ip Man at the New York Asian Film Festival is next Monday! Check here for tickets.