Analyzing Hong Kong’s Kungfu Films from the Perspective of the Ip Man Series

Ip Man 3 has staged a comeback over the course of five years. Action director Woo Ping Yuen replaces Sammo Hung and remolds the praise spring boxing on the screen. While paying tribute to the classics, this film also adds many new elements. Since the huge success of Ip Man 1, films of the same type themed on Yip Man have emerged one after the other, and the praise spring boxing has become widely known. Hong Kong Kungfu films have become popular again.

Although the Ip Man series seem increasingly to lack strength from creation to box office, Ip Man 3 was shown in Hong Kong and other places synchronously on December 24, 2015, breaking multiple box office records. During the long vacation for Christmas and Spring Festival in Hong Kong, it went to the top at the box office, earning 36.5 million Hong Kong dollars and audiences of 457,000 people. In the Taiwan market, it broke the box office record previously held by You Are the Apple of My Eye. In Singapore, it set the box office record for a Chinese film in its first weekend. In Malaysia, it set the highest box office record for Chinese films in history. On March 4, Ip Man 3 was released in the Mainland film market.

Kungfu films: Chinese classics 

The success of the Ip Man series is a good jumping-off point to analyze Hong Kong Kungfu films.

If Wong Fei-hung (1949) was the first Hong Kong Kungfu film, the genre now has a history of 60 years. In 1969, From the Highway saw a transition to Chinese swordplay films. Later, Bo Sau and Boxer From Shantung augured the zenith of Hong Kong films. Then, King Boxer opened up the global film market for Hong Kong Kungfu films. Finally, Bruce Lee boosted the genre to an unsurpassable climax and attracted the attention of the global film forum, making Chinese Kungfu films famous around the world. Later on, new film types such as Kungfu comedy, action films, and the Wong Fei-hung series continued the upsurge. Action stars including Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Chiu Man-Cheuk have passed a legacy down from generation to generation. Kungfu films are said to be the greatest contributions that the Chinese have made to the world films. The genre is an important vehicle for Chinese film culture, and carries the memories of many generations of Chinese people.

The Ip Man Legacy 

The Ip Man series include three films, released in 2008, 2010, and 2016 on the Chinese Mainland. It is safe to say that this series is a vanguard in both reputation and box office takings among Hong Kong films.

Ip Man 1 is set in Guangdong Province at the collision of new cultures. At that time, battles raged out and people suffered dreadfully. Then, Yip Man appeared. Fighting the Japanese masters, he experienced an awakening, turning from a military man of integrity to a chivalrous character. In Ip Man 2, Yip Man came to Hong Kong for the first time and fought with members of local martial clubs; faced with external enemies, he practiced with the warriors in the martial clubs and improved his skills as well as his outlook. Ip Man 3 shows the love between Yip Man and his beloved wife, Cheung Wing-Sing. Through a duel with Zhang Tianzhi, he proves himself to be No.1 in the world in terms of martial arts.

Over the years, Kungfu films have been exploring the connotation of this theme, particularly Wong Fei-hung, Legend of A Fighter, The Grandmasters, and Ip Man. Ip Man 3 expresses it in a more subtle way, emphasizing emotions. In the fight between Yip Man and Zhang Tianzhi, Yip Man gives up the fight because he has to accompany his wife to a dance. He gives up his reputation with a tenderness seldom seen in this kind of film. From “being able to afford it” in the former two films to “being able to abandon it” in this film, Yip Man does not become less of a man, but embodies the true qualities of a hero. Later, Yip Man defeats Zhang Tianzhi with stick and knife boxing. Their children witness the fight and understand their fathers better. In this way, Ip Man 3 realizes a connection between two generations.

The success of the Ip Man series lies in the action creation team centered on Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung and Woo Ping Yuen. The latter’s action design has reached perfection, and Donnie Yen’s work is always innovative. It is a fight between men, and an action film between grandmaster and master. As well as the action and the feelings of the martial masters, there are also life sentiments and introspection, which are seldom seen in other films. Director Wilson Yip and scriptwriter Hugo Wong infuse their thoughts about the history of Hong Kong into the Ip Man series, making it very unusual among its peers.

In this film, Yip Man’s wife Cheung Wing-Sing, played by Lynn Hung, stands silently beside her husband. Although this role does not have a decisive function in the plot from Ip Man 1 to 3, the emotional relationship between Yip Man and his wife shows the traditional outlook of Chinese family values. The film uses an actress who is much taller than Donnie Yen to play his wife. She seems strong, but she is also a traditional Chinese woman. She does little in the three films, but audiences remember her. The traditional tenderness of Chinese women is the most profound complement to the theme of the film.

The martial director of the first two Ip Man films was Sammo Hung. Hung is particularly good at designing group fights, creating the classic action scenes of “one fighting with ten” and “one fighting with dozens”. He has won the award for Best Action Design at the Hong Kong Film Awards twice, with Ip Man and Ip Man 2. In the films, Yip Man adopts praise spring boxing, which emphasizes close and short beats. The action does not look so good. It may seem awkward if a full-length shot is adopted. Of course, Sammo Hung knew this, so most of the scenes adopted close shots with rapid cutting, making the boxing look quick and artful. The shots were full of visual impact. Donnie Yen did not have much experience in praise spring boxing. However, he made a good job of it on screen.

In Ip Man 1, Yip Man and Master Liao have a fight. If you pay attention to them beating the wooden people in the prelude, you will see that this fight contains most of the actions of wooden dummy jousting, showing the actual combat value of praise spring boxing. The character of Jin Shanzhao uses North Sect martial arts. The action was stretched with the large horse stance, suitable for the big screen. Louis Fan, who played this role, made an interesting performance. In his fight with Yip Man, one is static and the other is dynamic; one makes large-scale movements and the other adopts hand-to-hand fight in tights. The antagonist San Pu uses traditional karate. Yip Man, Jin Shanzhao, and General San Pu have vivid martial skills, which are typical of the genre. The film’s fresh design is also typical of traditional Kungfu film in terms of technique.

In fact, assessment of an action film depends more on plot. Action design is now mature, but the connection of action and plot in some films is still not so good. Many films even add fights for the sake of fighting. Some fights are totally confusing, greatly reducing the original expressive force of the action film. This is not the case for the Ip Man films.

A good action film should not have fights for the sake of fighting. It should have the following elements: the plot should synchronize with the feelings of the characters; second, it can reflect some plots; it should give consideration to reality and artistry; it should feature impressive action and scenes; there should be consistence in the fight scenes. The action design in Ip Man 1 meets these five requirements. Yip Man and Master Liao fight an easy fight with wide gaps in their ability. They fight merely for the communication of martial arts. Yip Man is relaxed; Jin Shanzhao stirs up trouble and Yip Man takes the initiative to attack. When he finds that Jin Shanzhao is just so-so, a smile appears on his face. When Yip Man grows hateful, the classic saying that “I will fight with ten people” appears; the final battle is between masters. Gradually, Yip Man calms down. In the plot, he “fights with ten”, which foreshadows his ultimate fight with San Pu. Audiences will remember the serial straight boxing exclusive to Yip Man, and recognize the quickness of his punches. The scene in which he fights a wooden dummy accords with the part where he fights San Pu in the end. Sammo Hung guided Donnie Yen in Ip Man 1, encouraging him to use traditional Kungfu.

The fight between Hung Ga and praise spring boxing is the highlight of Ip Man 2. Master Hung and Yip Man greet each other with a fight, and perform several soul-stirring bouts. The round table contest between Master Hung and Donnie Yen is undertaken within the burning time of a stick of incense. To showcase the special aspects of traditional praise spring boxing, Sammo Hung chose monkey boxing and Eight Diagrams Palm. Finally, Master Hung adopts Hung Ga to counter praise spring boxing. Monkey boxing is used to test the real strength of a praise spring boxer with fierce jumping. In Eight Diagrams Palm circles, one fighter catches and attacks his opponent with slow beating and quick action. Hung Ga is powerful and strong, fighting serial punches with praise spring boxing. With specially made action design, the martial punches of different schools countered praise spring boxing. In order to increase the difficulty and aesthetic appeal of the actions, Sammo Hung designed a large round table with 12 seats as the platform for martial competition. Yip Man and the masters from different schools fought in a narrow space, adding an element of mystery to the film.

Woo Ping Yuen was the martial director of Ip Man 3. He enjoys a high reputation in the field, and is said to be the No.1 martial director in the world. People call him “Baye”. His work includes Eagle Spreading Its Wings, Bullet Time, and the signboard martial actions in The Matrix. One feature of his action scenes is that fighting involves another plot. He shows a martial duel alongside an emotional duel. Woo Ping Yuen is good at designing action according to the Kungfu background and personalities of each person. He has said: “The scenes I design vary from person to person.” In action design, he has to exert the merits of each person to the fullest. He believes the martial arts will not change people, but people will change martial arts. Different people have different styles.

In Ip Man 3, in the first fight in elevator room, choreographed a fight in a small space for the unknown killer. Donnie Yen is better at fighting with his hands. At the beginning, the audience thinks that this fight will be cruel and ferocious. However, after combining his speed with praise spring boxing, Donnie Yen fights a smooth fight in the elevator room, combining strength and beauty. Donnie Yen scales back the cruelty of Chinese boxing, but enlarges the appeal of the action.

The fight between Donnie Yen and boxing champion Tyson is a conflict between power and speed, rigidity and tenderness. It combines Eastern and Western aesthetics. Woo Ping Yuen choreographed praise spring boxing stretches and low leg hits to overmaster Tyson’s boxing. Different from the previous two films, the ultimate rival of Ip Man 3 arrives in the final part. Zhang Tianzhi, the praise spring boxing master played by Max Zhang, challenges Yip Man, thus sparking a battle to be the real master of praise spring boxing. The two are both friends and rivals. In the duel, they perform multiple changes to the classic movements of praise spring boxing such as “let go, paddle, bend over”. In addition, the classic Butterfly Swords Form is performed. Ip Man 3 gathers the movements and essence of praise spring boxing in terms of martial choreography – a tribute to praise spring boxing.

Family-country Feelings and Personal Ethics 

Most classic Kungfu themes end up with “fighting with foreigners”. Bruce Lee kicks away the sign that says “No Chinese and no dogs”. Wong Fei-hung said to the Russians: “You are unqualified to worry about the destiny of the Chinese over two hundred years.” The protagonist in the Ip Man series first beats the Japanese, then Britain’s boxing king Tyson in Ip Man 3. The spiritual imagination of the national hero spans a decade, satisfying Chinese national pride.

Almost all successful Kungfu actors fight foreigners in their films. Kungfu stars are made and exalted by the box office. Decision makers in the field found that among the various marketing means, nationalism has proven most effective. Audiences love it, so they will keep shooting it.

In terms of films themselves, the collision between Chinese martial arts and Western boxing is a pioneering project in terms of visual effects. Their internal implications and external skills are totally different: one emphasizes patterns and techniques; the other focuses on strength and speed. Thus, the dramatic collision between them is filled with abundant possibilities. In reality, there is no factual evidence for whether Chinese Kungfu can defeat Western boxing. However, in Kungfu films over the course of a decade, there has been no doubt about Chinese martial arts. Since The Shaolin Temple series in the 1980s, audiences have shown appreciation for Chinese martial arts. It is safe to say that through innumerable duels between Kungfu masters and foreigners, filmmakers and audiences alike know that Chinese Kungfu can defeat all Western martial arts.

The trope of “small figure and big hero” occupies the current hero-oriented film market. For example, the war and action film Wolf Warriors starring Wu Jing in 2015 used this trop to the fullest. The hero in such films goes through a process of growth, with character building and ethical distillation in the combination of personal fortune and national destiny. However, the Ip Man series and even The Grandmaster by Wong Kar-wai abandoned the traditional structures and laws of ideology. Being quotidian, secular, and civilian is their joint mode. Donnie Yen’s Yip Man accords with the Chinese imagination of the martial master who is calm, modest, and righteous and will step up boldly when needed. After finishing what he needs to do, he will go back to being a recluse. The Ip Man series gets rid of the traditionally fierce martial style. Through the unique beauty of praise spring boxing, which combines rigidity and slenderness, it explores the inner world of figures, constructs their spiritual world, and depicts expressions and language in order to develop the personality of Yip Man – the great master who is mature, peaceful and indifferent to fame and wealth.

The Future of Action Films 

Over the past several years, the film market has been female-driven, particularly in nostalgic youth films and urban romances. However, in recent years, Ip Man and Wolf Warriors have been popular, which shows the market power of male urban youth. Male audiences generally need something more exciting. The so-called “violence aesthetics” are aimed towards men. In the current market situation, the future looks bright for Kungfu films.

Yip Man embodies the heroic image of the martial arts master. From discussions of survival in the first film, to a musing upon lifestyle in the second, to an awe of life in the third film, the series tries to find a more appropriate mode for this legendary figure.

The films have done well at the box office and gained a solid reputation, making the Kungfu genre popular once again. Donnie Yen is a “Kungfu master” of the new generation after Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Chiu Man-Cheuk. With the rising of the Mainland film market and the increasing demand for Kungfu films, the legend will continue. We can look forward to many new developments in Chinese action films in the future.

(Edited by: Wu Lan)


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