Ip Man 3 Primer: The Ip Man Movies (Ranked)

In commemoration of the third Ip Man movie IP MAN 3 (Releasing in the US January 22, 2016), I’ve compiled a list of all Ip Man movies and ranked them accordingly.

Ip Man (1 October 1893 – 1 December 1972), or Yip Man (pronounced “Yip Mon”), was a actual person, a renown Wing Chun martial arts instructor most famous for being an early instructor of Bruce Lee.  Mostly due to the success of IP MAN, a small flood of Ip Man movies followed.  Since then Ip Man has become a very popular character in contemporary China, much like a modern day Wong Fei-Hong.

However, while we know movies take liberties in their biographical adaptations, most Hong Kong films aren’t remotely factual or based on actual events.  Usually it’s just the name and the place that is correct, and the rest is pure fantasy.  All of these movies fit firmly in this category.  Of course, these movies shouldn’t be watched for their historical accuracy, but instead as top-notch exhibitions of Wing Chun kung fu framed within enjoyable stories.

That being said, in preparation for IP MAN 3, here are my quick reviews of the current Ip Man movies, along with which ones you need to see before the big premiere.

IP MAN (2008)

starring Donnie Yen, Louis Fan, Simon Yam / directed by Wilson Yip / action by Sammo Hung

Story Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5) Kung Fu Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

It’s the original movie that started the Ip Man craze and rocketed Donnie Lee to international fame. In their 4th collaboration together, director Wilson Yip and kung fu star Donnie Yen bring to life one of the most exciting new characters in Chinese folklore. The movie follows the life of Ip Man as he tries to establish a kung fu school in Foshan during the Sino-Japanese war during the late 1930’s.

With choreography by legend Sammo Hung, himself a director of several Wing Chun movies, the fights are intense, plentiful and beautiful.  In Sammo fashion, the fighting is hard-hitting and most stays on the ground, with a bit of wire work here and there.  They also feature the fast and furious punching attacks that are a signature of Donnie Yen.  It has a great story with wonderful period piece visuals and some of the most breath-taking fight scenes of the 00’s era.  It’s a classic that made it into my Kung Fu Starter Pack list.

IP MAN 2 (2010)

starring Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung / directed by Wilson Yip / action by Sammo Hung

Story Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5) Kung Fu Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

The success of the first film brought an announcement of a sequel almost before the first even left the theaters.  Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen rejoin forces as Ip Man tries to make a new life for himself in Hong Kong.  However, the local martial arts instructors, led by HK legend Sammo Hung, are very wary and do not welcome him into town.  Instead of evil Japanese foreign invaders, this time we have the evil British for good measure to compound more strife on top of his personal problems.  Packed to the gills with fights, including the iconic restaurant battle featuring martial arts greats such as Sammo Hung and Lo Mang, Wilson Yip tells another compelling action-packed story within a visually stunning backdrop.

It’s hard for me to choose which IP MAN movie is better, we’ll say both have their strengths for different reasons.

THE LEGEND IS BORN: IP MAN (2010)

starring: Dennis To, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Louis Fan /directed by: Herman Yau / action by: Leo Au-Yeung, Chi Ming Liu

Story Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) Kung Fu Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
This film has no relation to the previous 2 Ip Man movies, and were made independently by a completely different production team.  This story follows the early life of Ip Man in his early 20’s.

Dennis To holds his own as Ip Man, though his interpretation is hard to compare to Donnie Yen’s.  The great bonus of this movie is the many amazing cameos, including Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Louis Fan and Ip Chun:  Ip Man’s real-life son. One of the best treats is the short but sweet blindfold fight between Sammo and Yuen, giving us a chance to see two of the “Three Brothers” on screen once again.   It doesn’t have the same impact of the Donnie Yen movies, but it is still unique and entertaining enough to hold up on its own.

IP MAN: THE FINAL FIGHT (2013)

starting Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang / directed by Herman Yau / action by: Chung Chi Li, Kwok Lam Sin

Story Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) Kung Fu Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

IP MAN: THE FINAL FIGHT stars the venerable Anthony Wong as Ip Man in his later years.  Though it might be considered a sequel to A LEGEND IS BORN due to having the same director, it is separate enough in story and character that it feels like a stand-alone movie.

Once again, in an attempt to start a new school, local rivals challenge Ip Man for martial supremacy.  All around a good story with competent fight scenes make a better-than-expected “final” entry into Ip Man’s life.

THE GRANDMASTER (2013)

starring Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Zhang Jin / directed by Wong Kar-wai / action by Yuen Woo-ping

Story Rating: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) Kung Fu Rating: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

All-star cast by legendary director Wong Kar-wai, THE GRANDMASTER is the arthouse version of the Ip Man movies.  Originally this was supposed to be produced around the same time as the first Donnie Yen IP MAN, but got trapped in development hell for about 8 years.

Wong Kar-wai tells his version of the Ip Man story in much more stylized way, following the lives of 3 main characters.  Tony Leung is Ip Man, the legendary Wing Chun instructor, and like the other movies we follow his life from Foshan through the Sino-Japanese War to his escape to Hong Kong to start a new kung fu school.  Zhang Ziyi is Gong Er, the child and student of a rival martial arts master on a quest for revenge against Ip Man.  Ma San (Zhang Jin, aka Max Zhang) is a Chinese dissident who aligns with the Japanese upon their invasion of China during the war, and eventually draws the ire of Gong Er.

The kung fu scenes are very sparse, but are visually very impressive to watch when they appear.  The train station fight with Zhang Ziyi and Zhang Jin is quite iconic, and though a bit wirey is still creative and fun to watch.  Ip Man’s fight in the rain is also very memorable.  Tony Leung, though not trained classically in martial arts, pulls of his scenes well enough to be convincing.

Fundamentally, this is an arthouse movie, not a kung fu movie.  The story is quite disjointed and the focus is confusing, though apparently we in the West saw a shorter version that ran 108 minutes.  It has moments, but overall is fairly disappointing considering all the hype.

Should I watch them?

Definitely watch IP MAN and IP MAN 2, regardless if you go see IP MAN 3. The first two are kung fu classics. I’ve enjoyed the others, but they are completely separate in story, production and cast, and are not required viewing for IP MAN 3.  The Herman Yau movies are definitely good on their own, with LEGEND IS BORN being the superior.   THE GRANDMASTER was the least impressive out of this set.  I still enjoyed it, I just won’t be re-watching it anytime soon.  Overall, these are quality films, which helps explain why the Ip Man trend seems to continue so strongly.  I only expect more in the years to come.

Hope this helps, and hope we all get to enjoy IP MAN 3!

Posted on January 11, 2016 in Kung Fu Movie Reviews, Kung Fu Theatre

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About the Author

Aaron Andersen is the creative director of Legendary Weapons of LA. He's a designer, animator and avid fan of kung fu cinema.

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