Unofficial Ip Man prequel has a quality look and lively tone, with plenty of good action. Ancillary in the West, a free ride on Ip Man-ia in the East.
Foshan, Guangdong, southern China, 1905. Wing Chun master Chan Wah-sun (Sammo Hung) is asked by the owner of his school's premises to take on his two young sons, Ip Man and the adopted Ip Tien-chi, as pupils. When Chan dies the following year, his old friend Ng Chun-sui (Yuen Biao) takes over as head of the school. In 1915, Ip Man captures the heart of Cheung Wing-sing (Crystal Huang), elder daughter of the deputy mayor (Lam Suet), after defending her in a street brawl, but engenders the jealousy of Lee Mei-wai (Rose Chan), a fellow student who's fancied him since childhood. Later that year, Ip Man goes to Hong Kong to further his education at St. Stephen's College and by chance meets old Wing Chun master Leung Bik (Yip Chun), who teaches him new variations on the Wing Chun style. Meanwhile, in Foshan, Lee is courted by Ip Tien-chi, who has opened a Jing Wu martial arts school. Meanwhile, tensions between Chinese and Japanese are rising in the city as the latter, led by shady businessman Kitano, throw their weight around. Soon after Ip Man returns in 1919, these tensions boil over.
The Ip Man bar stays pretty high with Hong Kong director Herman Yau's (邱禮濤) unofficial prequel to the two films starring Donnie Yen (甄子丹). Also shot in China, using a mixture of Hong Kong and Mainland talent, this is at the classy end of the super-prolific Yau's spectrum, with richly-hued widescreen photography, good-looking costumes and a younger Yen look-alike in the main role who's utterly believable. The film doesn't have the studied retro look and feel of director Wilson Yip's (葉偉信) Ip Man (葉問) and Ip Man 2 (葉問2), the pacing is more restless, and the action less classically staged and shot. However, in its own way the movie is just as involving on an entertainment level, and the copious displays of martial arts are just as hypnotic, with fighting used to advance the story and express character rather than simply to provide spectacle.
In fact, there's probably more fighting in The Legend Is Born (葉問前傳) than in the other two movies combined, as characters set to it at the drop of a hat rather than waste time shaking hands or talking. If Legend doesn't have the look of a '60s/'70s Hong Kong martial arts movie, it certainly has the social manners of one, and the choreography, supervised by producer/story writer/Wing Chun pupil Checkley Sin (冼國林), is agile and inventive without resorting to modern-style visual effects or excessive wire-work.
The okay script by Erica Li (李敏, Yau's episodic comedy Split Second Murders 死神傻了) and the laundered but good-looking production/costume design spend some time, especially in the first half, sketching the gradual encroachment of westernisation, often in a fun way. A visit to a cinema to watch Nosferatu is one of the non-action highlights, and the use of English folk song Greensleeves as a love motif surprisingly works. Frequent date/place captions give the heavily fictionalised film a spurious biopic feel but, once the anti-Japanese plot warms up in the second half, the film's genre side takes over, leading to a superbly staged, two-part action finale. Interestingly, the Japanese aren't demonised, or overplayed, to such an extent as in Ip Man.
Without detracting from the quietly assured lead performance by Dennis To (杜宇航), who ironically played Sammo Hung's (洪金寶) main pupil in Ip Man 2, veterans Hung (briefly appearing at the start) and Yuen Biao (元彪, subsequently shouldering the "master" role) give the film some star ballast, and there's a wonderfully cheeky performance by Yip Chun (葉准), eldest son of the real Ip Man, as an old master who teaches our hero some new tricks. Louis Fan (樊少皇), who didn't get much of a role in Ip Man 2, has a much meatier co-starring part here as the hero's adopted brother, while Mainland actress Crystal Huang (黃奕, Brothers 兄弟) brings a lot of class, as well as a stunning wardrobe, to the main love interest and Canadian-born Bernice Liu (廖碧兒) some statuesque villainy to a Japanese baddie.