Director: Herman Yau
Cast: Dennis To, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Fan Siu-wong, Huang Yi, Ip Chun, Kenya Sawada, Betty Huang Yi, Bernice Liu Bik Yi, Lam Suet, Chen Zhi Hui, Kenya Sawada, Sire Ma Sai, Hins Cheung Ging Hin, Louis Cheung Kai Chung, Dang Shan Peng, Ding Xiao Lung, Lee Gwok Lun
Running Time: 100 min.
Viewers would be forgiven for thinking that “The Legend is Born” is a legitimate prequel to Donnie Yen’s “Ip Man” series. Not only was it erroneously marketed as “Ip Man Zero” in order to capitalize on the success of Yen’s films but it also stars Sammo Hueng and Fan Siu-Wong (“Ricky-Oh: The Story of Ricky“), who both had major roles in the “Ip Man” movies. However, “The Legend is Born” is not part of the same series.
The temptation, then, is to see this as a cash-in on the part of director Herman Yau, a way to make a profit off the newfound popularity of Bruce Lee’s mentor Yip Man; and this film is at least part of the reason why Donnie Yen has abandoned development on “Ip Man 3” for the time being. But after watching the film myself, I can say it’s actually pretty good. To put it another way: I doubt Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, two martial arts legends in their own right, would have signed on for this movie if they thought it was crap.
I don’t envy any actor who has to fill Donnie Yen’s shoes. But that’s just what young martial artist and actor Dennis To has to do in “The Legend is Born,” as he steps into the role of a young Ip Man. Dennis acquits himself rather nicely in the film’s many fight scenes but his acting leaves something to be desired. He comes across as a bit flat and unemotional, but then again there’s a point in the movie where another character actually compares him to a wooden training dummy so perhaps his stiff manner was intentional. He simply lacks the charm and warmth of Donnie Yen in the role but I wouldn’t write this kid off just yet.
“The Legend is Born” traces another fictionalized arc in the Yip’s life, following his first journey to Hong Kong for educational purposes and the development of his Wing Chun skills. I’m not sure if the real Yip Man had a half-Japanese brother – probably not – but this angle is played up for maximum conflict. The real problem with the film’s screenplay is that it often feels like a montage of Ip Man’s early life, a ‘cliff notes’ take on its protagonist, whereas Donnie Yen’s films excelled at choosing a period in Ip Man’s life and telling a complete story from there. There are times when “The Legend is Born” feels entirely superficial in comparison to the first “Ip Man,” and the low production values certainly don’t help.
But fortunately “The Legend is Born” excels where it counts: the fight scenes. Despite a slow stretch towards the start of the third act, this film is fairly packed with action. The choreography is by Tony Leung Siu Hung, an underrated action director who has worked on many classic Hong Kong films and helmed the 90’s Gary Daniels flick “Bloodmoon.” Dennis To practiced Wing Chun for six years before his break into acting (he even had a brief appearance in “Ip Man 2“), while anyone who’s seen “The Story of Ricky” or the first “Ip Man” knows that Fong Sai Hung can kick ass. Toss in some fight scenes for Yuen Biao and a surprise cameo from the actual Yip Man’s real life son, Ip Chung, and “The Legend is Born” has the chance to win over even the most staunch Donnie Yen fan.
This is not the first movie about Ip Man and it won’t be the last – Wong Kar-Wai has his own take on Master Yip coming sometime next year. Donnie Yen’s achievements may tower over “The Legend is Born” but there’s enough about this would-be prequel to recommend. Even with a slightly un-involving performance from Dennis To, supporting turns from HK veterans like Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao help color the film, and the fight choreography from Tony Leung Siu Hung is topnotch. If you’re curious to learn more about the life of Ip Man, albeit in a highly fictionalized and exaggerated context, then “The Legend is Born” should prove enjoyable.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 7/10