The Legend is Born: Ip Man (2010)
Director: Herman Yau
Writers: Erica Lee
Starring: To Yu-Hang, Fan Siu-Wong, Yuen Biao, Lam Suet and Sammo Hung

The Plot: This is a semi-biographical account detailing the early life of Ip Man, the famed martial artist known for being the instructor of Bruce Lee. This version of his story takes place in his earliest years and starts off with Ip Man (played by To Yu-Hang) and his brother Ip Tin-chi (played by Fan Siu-Wong) being sent off to train under Chan Wah-shun (played by Sammo Hung). Learning the martial arts of Wing Chun, the brothers both become exceptionally skilled. In this time, Tin-chi falls in love with Lee Mei-wai who is unfortunately in love with Ip Man. Ip Man however doesn’t return her affection and instead falls for Cheung Wing-shing (Huang Yi), the daughter of a local official (Lam Suet) who doesn’t approve of the young martial artist. As Ip Man grows, he ultimately heads off to college where he meets up with Leung Bik, who is the nephew of the man who taught Ip Man’s very own master. Leung Bik then teaches Ip Man a more fluid version of Wing Chun that becomes the envy of his school upon his return, which causes him a great amount of strife! Will Ip Man find love with Cheung Wing-shing, will Tin-chi get over the jealousy he feels for his brother and what will happen to Ip Man’s home with the threat of an incoming Japanese invasion!?

The Review
It has never been the situation that Hong Kong filmmakers were afraid to at best borrow, at worst blatantly steal, from other filmmakers. It is as much a part of the filmmaking culture of Hong Kong as martial arts in general. The entire subgenre of cinema known as Brucesploitation is the epitome of such a thing. When something is hot in Hong Kong, it isn’t uncommon to see several filmmakers jumping on board in order to reap in some of the rewards. Such is the case with the recent popularity of grandmaster Ip Man, who has inspired four very high profile studies on his life in recent years. There are the two most famous, as of this writing, which are the Donnie Yen starring and Wilson Yip directed films: Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2 (2010). Due to be released in short order is also the Wong Kar-Wai film The Grandmasters (2012), which most are expecting to be the more emotional and artistic portrait of the famed martial artists. Finally, we have The Legend is Born: Ip Man which certainly feels like the most modest of the four films. This modesty is likely very fitting, due to how it deals with Ip Man as a youth, rather the martial arts legend that he would later become. This portion of Ip Man’s life has so far been neglected in the cinematic realm, so one can imagine that it would surely make for entertaining cinema. Unfortunately, the film itself comes off as predictable in spots and disengaging during others.

As a fan of the original Donnie Yen Ip Man, and one who moderately liked Ip Man 2, I was bound to check out the Legend is Born: Ip Man at some point. However, the one facet that grabbed me the most and made me seek the film out was the cast. More specifically, two members of the cast. Even more specifically, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. Part of the immortal “three dragons”, along with Jackie Chan, during the eighties these three starred in some of the most entertaining martial arts comedies the world had seen. Yuen Biao, who has always been a favorite of mine for his acrobatic skills and comedic timing, has remained fairly quiet throughout the past two decades so I was intrigued to see him back in action alongside Sammo Hung. While The Legend is Born may not be extremely successful in many regards, the moments that these two share on screen is enough for me to give the movie a bonus point or so. Along with the rest of the celebrated cast, you have to give it to the film for putting together some tremendous talent, regardless of the overall content. Not only do we have two out of the three “dragons”, but we also have the brilliant Lam Suet as well as the immortal Fan Siu-Wong, also known as Ricky Ho from Ricky Oh: The Story of Ricky. With a cast like this, it would seem hard to mess things up… it would SEEM that way, at least.

While I won’t say that Legend is Born… is a total blunder, it is unfortunately a case of missed opportunity. With such a tremendous cast, and veteran Hong Kong director Herman Yau at the helm, this is a project that seemed destined for something a little better than decent. Unfortunately that isn’t the case. The most appropriate word for the project would be “serviceable”. It hits on several of the key areas that both an epic period-era biographic picture and martial arts films should, but it is a project that finds itself stuck in a quagmire of cliche genre-necessities. We have the love story, we have a love triangle that almost seems interesting and of course we have the regular quota of necessary fight scenes. Painting by the numbers, there’s not much in the way of originality here and it hurts the project. Everything is laid out for us and our cast simply populates space in a rather bland story. I say this, and I genuinely feel the movie lacks involving content, but the flipside of being “serviceable” comes in the fact that at its very best the movie is entertaining. Although this has been done before and the fight choreography seems to be ripped directly from Donnie Yen’s Ip Man, at least the fight scenes are interesting, even if the plot that got us into the fight isn’t.

Featuring a great bit where Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung have a demonstration while blindfolded, as well as the many fight scenes that populate the movie (including a great bit where Ip Man meets his master who is elderly, but whom still manages to give the youngster a beating), the choreography and the “cool” effect generally keep the movie floating along. Starring To Yu-Hang, who does look a bit like a young Donnie Yen, the movie unfortunately rests upon his shoulders and his bland imitation of Donnie Yen’s “Ip” is part of the disengaging problem that the film has. Although To Yu-Hang does a great job in imitating Yen’s fighting style, he unfortunately doesn’t do as well in representing the regal personality that Yen helped create in his version of the character. Instead, Ip Man comes across as cold and uncaring this go around. Watching Ip Man fall in love is like watching a robot read poetry, it is cold, uncomfortable and is very unconvincing. The scenes where he actually starts to become animated, while in the presence of his future wife, are so distant and off-putting from the rest of his performance that we simply can’t buy into the character. Yen, despite his quiet mannerisms in the Ip Man movies, still remains warm and likable and this is a tremendous problem within The Legend is Born.

The Conclusion
A film with tons of promise. A fantastic cast and great choreography seemed like all one would need, but unfortunately all seems wasted due to a bland script and a vanilla leading man. I am not completely down about To Yu-Hang, the young actor seems to have charisma but with a role like this it seems his producers simply wanted a cardboard cutout of Donnie Yen to stand in place of the actor. As many flaws as it may have, I did have some fun with this film and the pacing isn’t bad either. I give it a three out of five. I would recommend renting it before actually paying any money down.