This is a strange story, & not at all straightforward, so it would help to try to understand it by its political context. Now, the 20th century in China was more or less a long series of internal wars & then the Communist tyranny. Our story moves from the ‘30s to the ‘50s, from the Japanese invasion of China to the Communist rise to power. But Yip Man involved himself very little with political facts. When the Communists conquered China, he left to Hong Kong, where he lived the remainder of his life.
His life in China & his exile form the two parts of the movie. About the first, he says that if his life were made of four seasons, spring lasted until he was 40. About the second, that spring was suddenly followed by winter. Life is not like the seasons then. We also see the two halves in this way: Yip Man talks much more in the first than in the second.
The rise of Yip Man among the martial artists in the South of China is the first story. In the beginning, he says Kung Fu is two characters, one vertical, one horizontal: At the end, one falls, one stands. That is victory. Talk of kung fu, masters, & style is useless. Learning martial arts is for practice. Does not this mean the same as might makes right?
The theme of the first story is suggested by Yip Man’s great confidence, which seems to be borne out by his skills. His adversaries seem far more learned. He only has three techniques. Simplicity is the truth about martial arts. War is the education about war; learning hides that fact, it pretends to turn motion into rest. This suggests that dueling reveals the essence of things. This is why the film showcases motions.
This first story centers on the contest for the leadership of the association of martial artists. The current ruler is now old & he wants to organize his succession. He is looking for the next grandmaster. This man would have to prove himself. This would persuade all the notables, who must assent. Then it turns out that this does not mean slaughter. A peaceful succession is implied in the concept of martial art, we now realize.
How can war be an art? In the first contest, he shows he knows his adversary’s techniques. In the second, he shows he can anticipate motion. In the third, he proves the superiority of this learning to the learning of the schools. This causes a theoretical contest. Learning from one’s adversary is learning about oneself & about the world. We must now consider the double meaning of martial art.
Wong Kar Wai’s return to Hong Kong cinema. One of the best martial arts stories.