A master of Wing Chun has soundly defeated ten Japanese karatekas, who lie broken and groaning around him. General Miura, the organiser of this bout, demands to know the victorious fighter's name. After a pause, he answers: "I am only a Chinese".
At this point in Wilson Yip's film, Ip Man truly becomes a new folk hero. Once privileged and aloof, Ip has been transformed by the Japanese occupation of his country into a selfless protector of his people. Donnie Yen's performance as Ip reflects this change even in the way that he fights: a newfound sense of political commitment and righteous anger seems to pervade every strike.
The stories of folk heroes like Wong Fei-hong, Fong Sai-yuk, Huo Yuanjia and others have been a staple of Hong Kong film and TV for decades. Wong was portrayed by Kwan Tak-hing in the longest-running film series of all time, and then by Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Eddie Peng. While their nationalism can be overbearing, these films contain some of the best martial arts action ever shot.
By bringing a fictionalised version of Ip Man to the screen, Yip and Yen helped remake him as a folk hero for a new generation. The real Ip died well within living memory (in 1972) and the film has spawned multiple sequels, spinoffs, unrelated films, and a major TV series. As a screen myth, Ip Man is here to stay - as ripe for reinterpretation as his predecessors.
Yip's film does something more, however. It further enlarges the legend of Ip Man's most famous student - Bruce Lee. Transformed into a mythic figure in the moment of his premature death, Lee may already be the biggest martial arts folk hero of all; one forged within Hong Kong action cinema and one with truly global reach. Both Ip and Lee, master and student, are now sustained on screen, a permanent fixture in the great chain of martial arts mythology.
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