You know what’s better than streaming a good martial arts movie over the weekend? Streaming six good martial arts movies over the weekend. There are few pleasures quite like killing an entire day watching dudes get wrecked with expert choreography and just enough emotional motivation, things the Ip Man movies are excellent at. Better yet? You can stream them all on Netflix right now.
The Ip Man movies are a quadrilogy of martial arts movies from Hong Kong director Wilson Yip starring Donnie Yen as the eponymous Ip Man. They are, essentially, historical fiction: superhero movies about a real, extraordinary person doing a bunch of things he never did (and a few things that he did do). They rock, probably because they’re extremely fast and loose with history.
At first, it doesn’t seem like something that would make for a franchise. The first Ip Man film is a sweeping-yet-succinct epic that achieves everything it sets out to do. It sets up the flourishing martial arts schools in the Chinese city of Foshan in the 1930s, where Ip Man mostly hides in plain sight. He’s cultured and wealthy, and having no need for income, doesn’t feel he has to open a school. Instead, he prefers privately perfecting his then-obscure and ridiculed Wing Chun style of fighting and passing time with his family. He’s quiet about his skill, but to those who are persistent, he will oblige the occasional duel.
Across an hour and 45 minutes, Ip Man then swiftly spans a decade of history. The Second Sino-Japanese War begins and the Japanese army invades Foshan in 1937; Ip Man loses everything and is forced into hard labor; the oppression of the occupiers causes lawlessness to abound. Beset on all sides, Ip Man eventually inspires his fellow people by both training them in Wing Chun to fight off bandits and also by participating in bouts hosted by General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi). Eventually, he challenges Miura himself, inspiring a revolt 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 drama. But the reason it works so well all comes back to Donnie Yen. Yen’s performance portrays Ip Man as part Mr. Rogers and part Captain America, a friendly neighbor who can wreck your shit but is only really moved to if there’s a bully who needs to be checked. But once he does? Watching the man move is incredible — due in no small part to the work of acclaimed choreographer Sammo Hung, who worked on the first two films.
The three sequels that follow are a testament to Donnie Yen’s performance. They’re even less interested in biography than the original; mostly, they are plots constructed to give Ip Man another reason to fight. But rather than making them feel repetitive — and they are obviously formulaic — they become comforting in their rhythms. Taken together, they say more than any one film does on its own.
While the movies are all named after a single man, the stories are always about a community. Following the blueprint established in the first film, Ip Man films always begin 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 it was the victim’s fault, and challenging others to take him on and prove him wrong. The third film’s plot is incited by an American real estate developer (played by Mike Tyson) with designs to buy the land a school sits on. The fourth takes place in San Francisco, as Ip becomes acquainted with the racism faced by the residents of Chinatown.
In the middle of all these conflicts, Ip Man is an anchor: always righteous, always the best fighter, always kind. In fights, he is a marvel, taking his opponents apart with blindingly fast blows but also grace. He rarely draws blood or leaves enemies crippled, where the villains are comparatively violent. The most effective threats to Ip Man are from men who practice fierce, brutal styles. Colonizers and cowards draw blood, not Chinese masters, unless they must prove a point. The movies are, effectively, propaganda, much like American action movies are.
The Ip Man movies are political in the way Disney sports romps like Remember the Titans are political, flattening the real lives and beliefs of its subjects in favor of gentle nationalism and invoking blunt period racism against them. Like Steve Rogers, Ip is a man that seems unstuck in time, an idealized version of a bygone era that is called upon to confront the evils of the modern age. We’re not meant to focus on the inequalities of that lost age, but to focus instead on this superhero that represents it. And just like in a superhero movie, it’s appealing to see complex evils reduced to bad men who we can beat, if we are patient and diligent and stubborn enough to get up again every time we’re knocked on our ass.
A fascinating wrinkle to Ip Man’s success is the way that it effectively turned Ip Man the person into a popular character, as many other films followed in the wake of Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip’s blockbuster. There’s acclaimed director Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, a lyrical, gorgeous film that uses Ip Man’s life to mourn the end of an era. Another film, The Legend Is Born — Ip Man is another studio’s attempt to stake out a corner of the Ip Man mythos by an action-packed rendition on Ip’s early days. Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is a direct spinoff from Ip Man 3, a crime story about Cheung Tin-Chi, who challenged Ip for the title of Wing Chun grandmaster. (Of these, The Grandmaster and Master Z are also on Netflix and well worth watching.)
One of the central tensions of the Ip Man series is the desire Ip has to being a devoted family man and also a martial arts master. Usually, an external force compels him to reassert himself as a capable martial artist, and the dream of his return to full-time domesticity is deferred. The best example of this is in Ip Man 3, when he is challenged for the title of Wing Chun grandmaster by the upstart Cheung Tin-Chi (Zhang Jin). Instead of responding, he chooses to stay home and dance with his ailing wife, forfeiting his title. It’s this, and not the stunning fight scenes, that makes the Ip Man movies such endearing viewing: there’s a whole world out there demanding your time, your attention, your skill. Taking that world on can be rewarding and gratifying and hard to walk away from — but it’s also heroic to stay home and dance for as long as you can.