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Under the Radar: 'Ip Man' and the Problem with Netflix

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Nov 04, 2010 | 5:22am EDT

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Ip ManFor those without the palate for them, martial arts films can seem a dime a dozen. I don’t mean to sound pretentious, as I do not count myself among the connoisseurs. However, this means that when a martial arts film does strike my fancy, it is likely to be twice as fantastic. Such is the case with Ip Man, a film recently added to the Netflix Watch Instantly selection. I first saw this film in August 2009 at Cinemapocalypse, a 24-hour film festival at the Alamo Drafthouse. It was the last film of the event and didn’t start until dawn, but it effectively woke us all right the hell up.

Ip Man is based on the true story of Ki Man, a martial arts master skilled in the art of Wing Chun style. To the Chinese people, he is a celebrated hero. When Japan occupied China during WWII, Ip Man refused to bow to its oppressive will and rejected demands that he teach the soldiers his techniques. He is a symbol of national pride and strength, and this film beautifully canonizes his legend.

Donnie Yen is sensational in the title role. He plays the part with such grace, humility and empathy that it's impossible not to love him. While, granted, a Chinese production of the Ip Man story is not going to allow its beloved hero to be portrayed as a reprehensible scallywag, Yen still brings a beautiful regality to the part. But be not deceived by his humble demeanor, Donnie Yen -- as Ip Man -- will beat you into a coma with his bare hands.

The fight choreography in Ip Man is outstanding. It is so fast -- much of that a direct credit to Yen's ability -- and yet there is no skimping on impact. Even though the Ip Man is throwing punches faster than the human eye can track, we nevertheless feel each one land as it finds its target, lending much of the power to the film. I also love how grounded the fighting is, utilizing next to no wirework. Martial arts legend Sammo Hung orchestrated the fight sequences and really did an amazing job.

But what really sets Ip Man apart from other martial arts film is its beyond gorgeous cinematography and compelling story. I honestly don’t think there is a wasted frame in this movie, and each shot has a grandeur and beauty that adequately serves its heroic subject matter. The story of Ip Man is one of courage and honor that will not be deterred by tyranny, and yet he is never looking to be a hero and only wants to defend his friends and provide for his family. Who couldn’t identify with that? The WWII context makes the film historically relevant while the fact that Ip Man went on to be Bruce Lee’s trainer gives the film a completely separate tangibility.

Ip ManSo with everything that makes Ip Man great, and indeed one of my all time favorite martial arts films, one would think I’d be excited about its arrival on the Netflix Watch Instantly queue, right? Wrong! Like so many foreign films to make their way to this technological godsend, Ip Man is not subtitled but dubbed. I understand your reluctance to believe this as I assert it for a second time, but I am really not a snob. The simple fact of the matter is that when a foreign film is dubbed, in order to synch lip movements to English translations of the dialogue, lines can be altered and supplemental words and grunts can be inserted in the silliest of places.

If Ip Man were merely a mediocre action slugfest with the violence being its only marketable attribute, this would be totally forgivable. It would be a mindless distraction: an HD martial arts romp with awesome fights interspaced within a series of ridiculous conversations. But so much of the exposition of this film is delivered via title cards on the screen that are then not subtitled. So you effectively have not the first clue what the hell is going on. This would be irritating in any foreign film, but with one that has such a moving, powerful story, it is downright infuriating.

So please, either rent Ip Man from your local video store or take my strong advice and blind buy the Blu-ray. It is an incredible film that deserves more respect than Netflix’s shoddy dubbed version can offer. I haven’t ordered the disc through the company's mail service, but I would imagine it delivers the original Chinese audio track and would offer yet a third alternative to the streaming.

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