Fast, cheap and out of control -- that's how we like movies where fists and feet smash faces.
But Wong Kar Wai has something slow, lush and precise in mind for this story of Ip Man (Tony Leung), the legendary martial arts master who trained Bruce Lee. He offers a chance to dream in kung fu.
Wong follows Ip Man's life from wealthy young student of martial arts and practitioner of the wing chun fighting style (he declares his first 40 years to have been his "spring") to the Japanese invasion of China in 1938 and his subsequent struggle to support his family, his forever-chaste relationship with Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the highly skilled daughter of the former grandmaster, and Ip Man's rise in esteem as a formal, serious teacher ("Kung Fu is not a circus act" he offers quietly when discussing looser, street-theater fighting). And it's clear early on that the director cares less about exact historical events than how the man in the center of it never wavered from his chosen path as life threw its harshest blows. In both the martial arts challenges Ip Man accepted from opponents and in the historical upheavals that altered his destiny, he remained constant and upright.
The chapters are marked out methodically, often with title cards explaining the change in year, location and identities of other characters. And while this sort of narrative hand-holding is a departure for Wong -- and apparently part of a forced re-edit for American release, depending on your preferred news source -- whose storytelling style often challenges audience understanding of time and space, it allows him to focus more intently on composing action. When fights take place it's often outside in rain or snow falling in slow motion as bodies move exactly and quickly (or not). The camera closes in on hands and feet placed in specific poses, gestures that signal the whole. When Ip Man talks about his "spade, pin, sheath" technique the frame is soon filled with separate examples of those three motions. This isn't frantic, confusing, contemporary fight footage, edited for maximum incoherence. It's not the result of not enough camera coverage and lack of rehearsal. It's deliberate placement of bodies in the frame. Is it kung fu you're used to getting? No. Is it so beautiful to watch it doesn't matter? Yes.
And like earlier Wong films (In The Mood For Love, Chungking Express), he takes special care of his leads and focuses tightly on their faces and environments as they consider their next step and yearn for both life outside of struggle and for one another. A shot of Zhang seated among the employees of a kung fu brothel, one that pulls back and pans out, encompassing more and more faces, each staring directly at the camera, self-possessed, waiting to do whatever might be necessary, is a kind of still life portrait of expectations for women in another time. A battle on a staircase is so fantastical, exacting and calibrated (by legendary fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping) that it looks like dancing and flying decided to fuse into one insane practice.
So style edges out strict function here, becoming its own way of delivering the plot, making it less a traditional biopic than a cinematic sampling of meditative battle philosophy. Ip Man offers his ideas about life as an experience lived horizontally or vertically as fights demonstrate exactly what he means. "Take the longer view," he offers during one challenge. "Break from what you know and you will know more" goes another, each physical encounter (which he describes as "reunions") bolstering his thought process. And that's why it flies and dances like it does.