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Martial Arts Expert Breaks Down Ip Man's Iconic Fight Scenes

The Ip Man film series, based in broad strokes on the life of the kung fu master from whom it takes its name, is a high-water mark for martial arts choreography over the last two decades. It makes sense — the franchise stars wushu champion and human action figure Donnie Yen, and draws inspiration from the guy who taught Bruce Lee how to be Bruce Lee. That the series is visually stunning is a matter of empirical fact, but how real is it? Some of us grew up thinking that bad guys explode when you punch them thanks to Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers.

Luckily, there are experts out there who are willing to share their two cents — experts like Doug Noll, a former lawyer and self-described mediator, de-escalation expert, peacemaker and, crucially, 2nd degree black belt in a northern Chinese animal style of martial arts. He's also a Tai Chi master. Noll looked at some of the fight scenes from the Ip Man films with a critical eye, and broke them down for us. His verdict? Hit and miss.

The bad of Ip Man

Noll was critical of a few sequences, in particular. Ip Man's fight with the Hung Ga gang around the 23-minute mark of Ip Man 2 earned a fair amount of tut-tutting. "Totally fake," Noll assessed. "When you fight, you fight to kill and maim. None of the strikes caused any damage." It's true. As tends to be the case in many martial arts movies, the scene is played for theatricality, with one man fighting with his hands tied behind his back, and some of the danciest machete-wooden crate combo takedowns you're likely to run into on Netflix. 

Another soft target was the mid-Autumn festival fight from 2019's Ip Man 4: The Finale, when Donnie Yen hops on top of a Marine karate sensei, and pummels him with an onslaught of constant rock 'ems and sock 'ems — the likes of which are traditionally reserved for boxing robots. "Stupid," said Noll. "Those punches have no power. One kick to the head would end the fight."

The good of Ip Man

According to Noll, some of Ip Man's most thought-provoking shots derive from the film franchise's willingness to explore the use of chi. 

During Ip Man 4: The Finale, Donnie Yen's character experiences a brief battle of wills at a meeting, with a large glass lazy Susan in the middle of the table taking the brunt of the disagreement. Two men sit at either side, holding their hands against the edges of the turntable until it shatters. Noll's assessment: "Cool demo of the power of chi. Not sure whether this kind of power actually exists. I know I can blow out candles with chi, so there might be masters who can crack a glass table."

Another example: Ip Man 3's duel between Ip Man and Cheung Fung, when Yen finishes the fight with a classic one-inch punch. "Good demonstration of the use of real chi in fighting," Noll notes. "I've been able to do this a few times. It's quite amazing to see your opponent fly off you across the room. Master Yip uses a technique known as dim mak. I've only studied it a little, but it is truly deadly. A true dim mak strike to the throat would kill the opponent instantly."