WWII With Chinese Characteristics

Yesterday evening I watched the movie Ip Man streaming on Netflix. I think that the phenomenon of streaming has the potential of changing motion pictures in some basic ways (just as video rental did before it). More on that subject in a later post.

Ip Man is a beautifully crafted, highly sanitized and fictionalized biography of a real person, Ip Man, a master of the Chinese kung fu style known as Wing Chun, notable among other reasons for having been Bruce Lee’s teacher. The directing is good, the editing is first rate. The portayal of the title character by the veteran Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen is excellent, restrained, and compelling. I strongly suspect we’ll see more of him here in the West.

I won’t go into details of the plot or point out just how it was sanitized and fictionalized. Just see the picture (particularly if you’re a Netflix subscriber and streaming is available to you).

Fight choreography was by Sammo Hung and Tony Leung Siu-hung. To my eye far too much of the fighting in Hong Kong action movies looks like dance. I find it nearly unwatchable. Although this movie preserved some of the more exaggerated conventions of the genre, I found that the sparring and fighting looked more like their real life counterparts than is frequently the case. I will admit prejudice: I thought that the portrayal of Japanese martial arts was only fair—they had a distinct Chinese flavor.

I found the scene in which Ip Man faces and defeats ten Japanese martial arts practitioners reminiscent of a similar scene in Yojimbo. A great fight scene.

Although I give the picture an enthusiastic thumbs-up, if you have a limited appetite for Chinese nationalist propaganda you may find this picture difficult to watch. Not to put too fine a point on it but it is strongly anti-Japanese.

The action of the picture takes place between 1937 (just before the Japanese invasion and occupation) and 1944 with a footnote telling us that the war ended and what happened afterwards. The diction is strange, something to the effect that “on August 15, 1945 the Japanese surrendered and we won”. While I recognize that I view history through an American lens, I think that’s a pretty eccentric formulation. In particular I don’t see how you can talk about the end of the 2nd Sino-Japanese War (AKA WWII in China) without mentioned, in particular, the Soviet Union or Britain.

When the war ended in China the Japanese had occupied a considerable portion of the country for seven years. They occupied many of the cities but had been forced to a stalemate in the countryside. Without the British and Indian campaign from Burma Japan’s Operation Ichi-Go would doubtlessly have been more successful in pacifying the countyside and in all honesty I don’t see how the Chinese would ever have gotten the Japanese out without the million man Soviet Army, battle hardened, experienced, and successful having transferred their attentions from Europe to the East. The U. S. island-hopping campaign (necessitated by the failure of the Chinese to face down the Japanese successfully) pressed the Japanese from the East and South, the Soviets pressed the Japanese from the West and North, and the use of the atom bomb on the Japanese homeland delivered the coup de grâce.

The aforementioned notwithstanding it’s certainly interesting to see the story of the Japanese occupation told from the Chinese point of view.

7 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw

    My grandfather served in the U.S. army in the China, Burma, India Theatre, so I wouldn’t want to see the U.S. role diminished (in favor of the Soviets).

    Many people don’t realize that the U.S. had intervened with military aid to the Chinese prior to Pearl Harbor. The U.S. wanted to continue that policy, but after Pearl Harbor, other theatres took priority and the U.S. was reluctant to help Europe re-establish colonies in Indo-China.

    My grandfather’s deployment appears characteristic. On the way to Pennsylvania (presumably to be sent to Europe), the bus overturned on the turnpike, killing some of the passengers and breaking my grandfather’s collarbone. He was separated from his unit while he healed and then a call went out to find men to send to India. The men sent tended to be odd men out for one reason or another.

    His job was to ride in the plains flying supplies over “the Hump,” to the Chinese. When veterans later asked him what he did during the War, he would say drink coffee in China.

    When the Japanese retreated, he and the rest of the army advanced to Shanghai to prepare for the invasion. It was during this transit he met a member of the Flying Tigers who had been in theatre before the war.

    I belive my grandfather shipped back shortly after VJ day, but I think Americans remained, almost as an occupying force in Shanghai for a while afterwards.

  • My point was that the movie totally ignores any role whatever of any of the Allies other than China, a peculiar omission to say the least.

  • michael reynolds

    Dave:
    It’s funny how few people enjoy stories that go, “So, we were getting our asses kicked and a bunch of guys we don’t especially like saved us.”

    PD:
    I’ll bet not one American in 20 knows there was a Burma theater. It’s history roulette, some battles are celebrated, others forgotten. In fact we’ve managed to forget entire wars, let alone a theater here or there.

  • It’s funny how few people enjoy stories that go, “So, we were getting our asses kicked and a bunch of guys we don’t especially like saved us.”

    True, that.

    Nonetheless, he who sweeps history under the rug and pretends it all didn’t happen is doomed to repeat it. Or something. I’ve been guilty of it myself from time to time but I wasn’t teaching a billion people phony baloney nonsense.

    I similarly object to the Germans believing that only a minority supported the Nazis, the French believing that a lot of Frenchmen fought in the underground, the Japanese being unaware of what their grandfathers did in China. In my view this is part and parcel with Southern celebrations of the Confederacy (to which I also object).

  • PD Shaw

    Family illnesses are preventing me from visiting my grandmother this weekend, so I’m feeling reflective, not bitter about

    The best book I’ve read about the theatre is British, Bayley Harper’s “Forgotten Armies.” It places the Americans to the side, alternatively coming across as a small, indomitable fighting force or naive sinophiles. I would be interested in reading a Chinese perspective, but I suspect as long as China is “Maoist,” they will forget this little corner as well.

  • I’ve seen both Ip Man and Yojimbo, and I liked the former, but the latter, is in my opinion a great martial arts movie, perhaps one of the greatest (Seven Samurai would be the only other contender, IMO and that scene in the field with the kensai and the other samurai first with canes, then real swords….awesome scene). I know there is much, much more story to Yojimbo than just the martial arts, but most movies that have martial arts in them are almost comical and sloppy. Sword fights were not long drawn out processes. The initial fight scene in Yojimbo is fantastic, first time viewers should be sitting there going, “Wait, what just happened?!?!” They should know Toshiro Mfune’s character just killed several men, but the action was blindingly fast. Also, I’m totally convinced that scene was what George Lucas had in mind when he did the Mos Eisley cantina scene where Obi Wan kills the two guys at the bar.

    Regarding the historical aspects of the movie I’ve found that many Chinese movies that deal with that time period suffer from that problem. The role other countries played are greatly minimized if not eliminated.

  • I agree with you about Yojimbo, Steve. BTW, in that initial fight scene rather than watching the sword watch his feet. I did kendo for a number of years. I still have my bogu and break it out and work out every so often.

    Check out the Samurai trilogy, particularly the last in the series. Very, very good martial arts pictures.

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