Forty years after his death, there's a name that's become practically synonymous with Chinese kung fu films.
And no, it's not Bruce Lee.
It's actually his teacher Ip Man.
The late kung fu master's life story has inspired more movie releases than Spider-Man. So far, the five films include Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster, which opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
The Filmmakers' Creation
Ip Man (pronounced YEEP-mun in Cantonese) has long been renowned as a skilled teacher within the world of Wing Chun-style kung fu.
But he's also a new popular creation of Hong Kong filmmakers, says Grady Hendrix, co-founder of the New York Asian Film Festival.
"Ip Man was not a well-known public figure before these movies started," he says. "People haven't been sitting around going, 'Oh my god! I hope someone makes an Ip Man movie this year!' "
Instead, Hendrix says, the character many filmmakers had in mind to put on screen was Ip's most famous student, Bruce Lee.
But, Hendrix adds, "[filmmakers have] always been blocked by the Lee family who ... carefully controls his image." (A recent exception is the 2010 biopic Bruce Lee, My Brother, which received the support of Lee's brother Robert.) Unable to make Bruce Lee movies, filmmakers turned to what Hendrix calls "the next best thing" – his teacher.
The 'Traditional Chinese Way'
Bruce Lee's kung fu teacher was born in 1893 to a well-to-do family in southern China. After the communist takeover of China, Ip moved to Hong Kong, where he later died in 1972. Teaching Wing Chun kung fu, a personal interest since childhood, became his financial lifeline as a mainland Chinese émigré living in Hong Kong.
The Ip Man movies are loosely based on his life. They often portray him as a lone, nationalist hero with almost superhuman skills. In Ip Man 2, he nimbly balances on a tilting tabletop as he jabs at a challenger – a scenario that's more movie magic than an accurate display of skill level.
A visit to Allan Lee's Wing Chun kung fu school offers a more accurate depiction of what Ip Man in action may have really looked like. Lee first took lessons from Ip Man himself and his disciples almost 50 years ago, when he began learning Wing Chun principles like how to overcome an opponent's physical advantage and minimize his own movement.
Today, Lee runs the Ip Man Wing Chun Kung Fu Academy in a former bowling alley in Queens, N.Y. On a recent Saturday afternoon, about a half dozen of Lee's most senior students, armed with fraying wrist wraps and leg pads, threw punches and kicks atop a bare concrete slab.
Most of Lee's students are not of Chinese descent, but Lee says they're learning.
"I want to run my school in a traditional Chinese way," Lee says. "So you don't follow the American way here. You have to at least have certain etiquette to respect our last generation."
The last generation includes the smiling man in the painted portrait hanging in the back of the studio, where Lee's late teacher Ip Man appears to be keeping watch above a wooden dummy.
Still A 'Fresh' Character
Filmmaker Wong Kar Wai credits Ip Man's generation for passing on the martial arts tradition despite upheaval in China. His latest film The Grandmaster, which stars Tony Leung as Ip Man, is an action-packed meditation on Chinese martial arts philosophy that is intentionally old-fashioned.
"Today we see the Chinese went through rapid changes. It's time for us to return to our roots and to revisit our heritage," Wong says.
True to Wong's signature art-house style, The Grandmaster is one lush sequence after another. In an early scene, a gleaming brothel serves as the battleground for Ip Man and his rivals. The film crisscrosses over decades between Hong Kong and mainland China.
The other Ip Man movie this year – Ip Man: The Final Fight, which opens September 20 in select U.S. cities – is rooted in nostalgia for 1950s Hong Kong. Its plot revolves around labor strikes and anti-colonial politics.
The Final Fight is the second Ip Man project for screenwriter Erica Li, who also wrote the 2010 prequel about the kung fu master's early years The Legend Is Born: Ip Man.
Li says she understands Ip's appeal to audiences as a character.
"In the comic [book] world, you have Superman, Spider-man, [and the] Avengers. You guys have a lot [of heroes]! But [there's] not enough for martial arts," she explains. "Up [until] now, Ip Man [has been] relatively fresh and, not to be offensive, [there's] still room for exploitation!"
In fact, Ip follows a tradition of celebrated folk heroes from southern China with impressive martial arts skills that inspire film and TV projects. (The popular martial arts hero Wong Fei-hung, who has been played by Jet Li in the Once Upon A Time in China series, is set to make a film comeback.)
We've already seen Ip Man take down Japanese soldiers, British colonialists, Hong Kong gangsters and rival kung fu masters.
Space aliens and robots — you may be next.
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