Ip Man and The Rise of China, Reconsidered

I posted this a few months ago, but a student of mine recently looked at it and had a brilliant observation of his own that I include below.

Here is the original. . .

I like to watch ‘Kung-Fu’ movies on occasion.  Most of these used to come straight from Hong Kong, but recently movies are starting to come from China proper.  I have seen two such movies and their similar characteristics raised some questions.

The first was “Bodyguards and Assassins,” set in the early 20th century.  The plot revolves around an attempt to assassinate the leadership of the  nascent democratic movement by supporters of the traditional monarchy.

The second was “Ip Man,” a movie where you can safely fast-forward through all talking scenes and not miss much.  Thankfully, most of the movie consists of remarkable fighting scenes.

Both of these movies share in strongly nationalistic sub-plots, along with generally sub-par acting.  These are perhaps to be expected.  What did surprise me was the fact that each of these movies go for over-the-top drawn out emotional endings that are entirely predictable.  In the case of “Ip Man,” they even rejected the real story of Ip Man’s actual resistance to Japanese invaders during World War II and replaced it with something far more maudlin.

It is these over-dramatic endings that have me curious.

Are these over-dramatic endings common to any new creative endeavors embarked upon by people for the first time?  That is, are they likely to overdo it?  Are there similarities between Chinese movies today and the stories (written or film) during America’s rise ca. 1890-1920?  Perhaps there are some similarities with these movies and the stories of Horatio Alger.

Is this the kind of movie likely to be made by a nation on the rise?  In other words, do these dramatic expressions express something of the latent emotions of a people held back for a while?

India is in a similar position to China as far as its national arc is concerned.  Do Bollywood films display this same excessively manipulative emotion?

Or perhaps I am missing something and what I call ‘overdone’ is just right for Asian cultures as whole.  Is anyone familiar with media from Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, etc?

A friend suggested that the endings I described reflected how authoritarian cultures tell stories.  Think of Stalinist era propaganda stories.  If so, how authoritarian is China with its artists?

Again, a comparison with India would be helpful here.

This is the extent of my knowledge of foreign film.  I have many questions, and if anyone might have some answers or suggestions, do please respond.

Thus ends the original post.

The student’s theory was that Ip Man is a lot like Rocky in the construction of its story.  The Rocky template is the standard underdog story, of one man rising up against the system, or an unbeatable champion.  Ip Man turns that template on its head, however.  It is not about an underdog.  Anyone with knowledge sees he’s obviously the best at his craft.  He just needs a platform large enough so that others can give him his due.

Both Ip Man and Bodyguards and Assassins are basically national epics, so Ip Man can be easily seen as a stand-in for China.  In contrast, Rocky clearly is about an individual.

Great stuff!  Please keep comments like that coming.

Recently I saw the Jet-Li movie Fearless.  Jet-Li has starred in many American films, and has no doubt imbibed something of a western ethos.  But I think this movie had many distinctive Chinese themes.  The movie was just so-so for me, but I did find the tension between the two competing kinds of stories within the movie.  On the one hand, it is “western” in that Li’s character goes through a transformation and has to prove himself, which is not at all like Ip Man.  On the other hand, Li’s character fights “foreign-devils” just as in Ip Man 2, with strong nationalist overtones.  We will see if Chinese cinema changes if their political culture ends up more western than it is today.


Dave Mathwin

Warning: The Ip Man trailer has a bit of blood.