Starring: Dennis To, Fan Siu Wong, Rose Chan, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung (cameo)
As a young boy, Ip Man and his step-brother Ip Tin-Chi are enrolled in the Wing Chun martial arts school, run by Master Wah Shun (Hung) and his top student, Ng Chung-Sok (Biao), who takes over the school when the old master suddenly dies. Ip Man excels in his understanding and skills of Wing Chun, and is sent to college in Hong Kong. On his return to Foshan , he is met by many different challenges. On his studies he encountered Leung Bik (Ip Chun, Ip Man’s real-life eldest son) and learnt some new techniques which fly in the face of the traditional strictures of the “authentic Wing Chun” taught in his school, causing a rift between himself and his master. Meanwhile, the daughter of the deputy Governor has been awaiting his return, as his schooling in Hong Kong interrupted a burgeoning romance between them. In addition, the Japanese have been sinisterly investing in a number of businesses in Foshan, including the local athletics association.
The gut reaction to seeing this film on the shelves is going to be “rip-off”, following as it does the excellent Ip Man film starring Donnie Yen. But hold your horses boys and girls, even though this film was made by a different production company, it turns out there is plenty of room for everyone to play, and this proves to be almost as good as Donnie’s movie.
The Legend is Born: Ip Man wisely steers a wide berth around the previous film, and deals with the teens and twenties of Ip Man’s life. Dennis To is well cast in the role, bringing a fresh, youthful appeal to the role.
The cameo by Sammo Hung, and having Yuen Biao in a co-starring role, helps sell the pedigree of this film no end. An early blind-folded match between master and student is an excellent reminded of the two actor’s considerable skills as martial arts performers. Even more of a surprise is the involvement of Ip Chun, who plays a cantankerous manager of a pharmacy, who has learned of Ip Man’s prowess and demands a demonstration. The old man decimates poor Dennis To in an excellently choreographed scene.
Other than Ip Man’s education, the first two thirds of the film are also concerned with various characters and their relationships with each other. First there is the daughter of the Deputy Governor (played in regal fashion by the always excellent Lam Suet), who holds a candle for the quiet yet skilful Ip Man. Complicating matters is the unrequited love triangle formed by Man’s fellow student (Rose Chan) who secretly pines for him, and Ip Tin-Chin, who dotes on her hand and foot.
Of course, a straight-forward biopic wouldn’t be that interesting, so a plot of evil machinations and deep-cover spies is introduced to spice things up a bit and bring a sense of danger to the story. Viewers paying attention to the early scenes would have realised this plot was on the horizon due to a misplaced nightmare by a key character. Nevertheless, the plot culminates in an excellent confrontation. Dennis To shows why he was chosen to portray the early incarnation of the wing chun master. All the fight scenes and “matches” are fast paced and well choreographed with authentic wing chun moves. Whereas Donnie Yen used his wing chun skills against proponents of other martial arts styles, here Dennis To is facing other characters who are just as well-verse as he is, which gives the action scenes a little more tension (that’s the one problem with “prequels” – you know your protagonist is going to survive the end of the film, no matter what).
This is no rip off of the Donnie Yen film, rather an excellent companion piece with a slightly different interpretation of the title character. Packed with drama, excellent production values and some wonderful martial arts fight scenes,
The Legend is Born: Ip Man
deserves to be seen by all martial arts fans.