Do you know what's better than streaming a good martial arts movie over the weekend? Streaming six good martial arts films over the weekend. There are few joys like killing a full day when you see guys get ruined with expert choreography and just enough emotional motivation. Things that the Ip Man films are excellent at. Even better? You can now stream them all on Netflix.
The Ip Man films are a quadrilogy of martial arts films by Hong Kong director Wilson Yip, with Donnie Yen as Ip Man of the same name. It's essentially historical fiction: superhero films about a real, extraordinary person who does a number of things he never did (and a few things he did). They rock, probably because they're extremely quick and easy on history.
At first glance, it doesn't seem like something that would cater for a franchise. The first Ip Man film is a comprehensive but poignant epic that achieves everything it set out to do. In the 1930s, thriving martial arts schools were set up in the Chinese city of Foshan, with Ip Man mostly hiding within sight. He is cultured and wealthy and has no need for income. He doesn't feel like he has to open a school. Instead, he prefers to privately perfect his then obscure and mocked Wing Chun fighting style and spend time with his family. He's calm about his skills, but for those who are persistent, he'll sign the occasional duel.
Popcorn cinema at its best
Then, within an hour and 45 minutes, Ip Man quickly spanned a decade of history. The second Sino-Japanese war begins and the Japanese army invades Foshan in 1937. Ip You lose everything and are forced to work hard; The oppression of the occupiers leads to an abundance of lawlessness. Pressed on all sides, Ip Man ultimately inspires his fellow human beings by training them both in Wing Chun to repel bandits and taking part in fights organized by General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi). Ultimately, he challenges Miura himself and inspires a riot that allows Ip Man to escape with his family and start over in Hong Kong.
Ip Man is popcorn cinema at its finest, full of rousing, well-choreographed fights and historical dramas. But the reason it works so well all comes back to Donnie Yen. Yen's performance shows Ip Man as part of Mr. Rogers and as part of Captain America, a friendly neighbor who can ruin your shit but only really get moved when there's a bully to be checked. But what if he does it once? It's incredible to see the man move – not least thanks to the work of the renowned choreographer Sammo Hung, who worked on the first two films.
The following three sequels are testament to Donnie Yen's achievement. They are even less interested in biography than they are in the original. Most of the time they are plans to give Ip Man another reason to fight. But instead of making them repeat themselves – and they are obviously formulaic – they become comforting in their rhythms. Taken together, they say more than any other film by themselves.
Colonizers and cowards draw blood, not Chinese masters
While the films are all named after a single man, the story is always about a community. Following the blueprint established in the first film, Ip Man films always start with the burgeoning threat of a colonizing force. In the second film, a British boxer asserts his superiority by killing a Chinese man in the ring, insisting that it is the victim's fault, and challenging others to accept him and prove him wrong. The plot of the third film is inspired by an American real estate developer (played by Mike Tyson) with plans to buy the land on which a school is located. The fourth takes place in San Francisco when Ip learns about the racism of Chinatown residents.
In the midst of all these conflicts, Ip Man is an anchor: always fair, always the best fighter, always friendly. In fights he is a miracle that takes his opponents apart with blindingly fast blows, but also with grace. He rarely draws blood or leaves enemies crippled where the villains are comparatively violent. The most effective threats to Ip Man are men who practice wild, brutal styles. Colonizers and cowards draw blood, not Chinese masters, unless they have to prove a point. The films are practically propaganda, much like American action films.
The Ip Man films are political in the way that Disney sports like Remember the Titans are political, flattening real life and the beliefs of its subjects in favor of gentle nationalism and invoking racism from the dull days. Like Steve Rogers, Ip is a man who does not seem to hold on to time, an idealized version of a bygone era called to face the evils of modernity. We're not supposed to focus on the inequalities of this lost age, but rather on this superhero who represents it. And just like in a superhero movie, it's appealing to see how complex evils are reduced to bad men who we can defeat if we're patient and hardworking and stubborn enough to get up every time we pat our ass.
One intriguing crease in Ip Man's success is the way Ip Man effectively made the person a popular character, like many other films that followed Donnie Yen and Wilson Yips blockbusters. There's acclaimed director Wong Kar-wais, The Grandmaster, a lyrical, beautiful film that uses the life of Ip Man to mourn the end of an era. Another film, The Legend Is Born – Ip Man, is another studio's attempt to forge a corner of the Ip Man myth through an action-packed rendition of Ip's early days. Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is a direct offshoot of Ip Man 3, a detective story about Cheung Tin-Chi that challenged Ip for the title of Wing Chun Grand Master. (Of these, The Grandmaster and Master Z are also on Netflix and well worth watching.)
One of the central tensions in the Ip Man franchise is the desire that Ip have to be a devoted family man and a martial arts master as well. Usually some outside force forces him to assert himself as a skilled martial artist and the dream of returning to full-time domestic life is postponed. The best example of this is Ip Man 3, when he is challenged by the upstart Cheung Tin-Chi (Zhang Jin) for the title of Wing Chun Grand Master. Instead of answering, he prefers to stay home and dance with his sick wife, forfeiting his title. It is this, and not the breathtaking battle scenes, that make the Ip Man films so adorable: there is a whole world out there that demands your time, your attention, your skill. This world can be rewarding and enjoyable to embrace, and it can be difficult to walk away from it – but it is also heroic to stay home and dance for as long as possible.