DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Forty years after his death, his name that's become practically synonymous with Chinese kung fu films. We're not talking about Bruce Lee but his teacher - Yeep mun. The late kung fu master's life story has inspired more movie releases than Spider-Man. There are five so far, including "The Grandmaster" by Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai. That film opens today in New York and Los Angeles. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has the story.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Yeep mun - or Ip Man, as it's sometimes transliterated from Cantonese - has long been a big deal within the world of Wing Chun-style kung fu. But he's also a new popular creation of Hong Kong filmmakers, says Grady Hendrix, co-founder of the New York Asian Film Festival.
GRADY HENDRIX: Ip Man was not a well-known public figure before these movies started. People haven't been sitting around going, oh my god, I hope someone makes an Ip Man movie this year.
WANG: Instead, Hendrix says, the character many filmmakers had in mind was Yeep mun's most famous student - Bruce Lee.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ENTER THE DRAGON")
BRUCE LEE: (as Lee) Don't think, feel.
WANG: Hendrix says for many years Hong Kong filmmakers dreamed of making a new movie about Bruce Lee. But...
HENDRIX: They've always been blocked by the Lee family, who really carefully controls his image. So filmmakers have sort of dug around and said, well, what's the next best thing to Bruce Lee? Oh, his teacher.
WANG: A kung fu teacher who was born in 1893 in southern China and eventually settled in Hong Kong, where he died in 1972. The Yeep mun movies are loosely based on his life. They often portray him as a lone, nationalist hero with almost superhuman skills. In "Yeep mun 2," he nimbly balances on a tilting tabletop as he jabs at a challenger. So you're not teaching your students to stand on a table and fight off opponents?
ALLAN LEE: No. That is - that's only movie.
WANG: To see what Yeep mun in action may have really looked like, visit Allan Lee. Almost 50 years ago, he took lessons from Yeep mun himself and his disciples. He began learning Wing Chun principles like how to overcome an opponent's physical advantage and minimize his own movement. Today, he runs the Yeep mun Wing Chun Kung Fu Academy in a former bowling alley in Queens, New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF SNEAKERS SQUEAKING, PUNCHING PADS)
WANG: About a half dozen of Lee's students, armed with fraying wrist wraps and leg pads, throw punches and kicks atop a bare concrete slab.
ALLAN LEE: You don't follow the American way here. You have to at least have certain etiquette to respect our last generation.
WANG: It's Yeep mun's generation of kung fu masters — whom filmmaker Wong Kar Wai credits for passing on the martial arts tradition despite upheaval in China.
WONG KAR WAI: What exactly is Chinese martial arts? What exactly is kung fu? Is it only just kicks and punches?
WANG: The answer may lie within "The Grandmaster." It's an action-packed meditation on Chinese martial arts philosophy that is intentionally old-fashioned.
WAI: Today we see the Chinese went through rapid changes. It's time for us to return to our roots and to revisit our heritage.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE GRANDMASTER" THEME)
WANG: True to Wong Kar Wai's signature art-house style, "The Grandmaster" is one lush sequence after another. In an early scene, a gleaming brothel serves as the battleground for Yeep mun and his rivals. The film crisscrosses over decades between Hong Kong and mainland China. The other Yeep mun movie this year, "The Final Fight," is rooted in nostalgia for 1950s Hong Kong.
That film's plot revolves around labor strikes and anti-colonial politics. "The Final Fight" is the second Yeep mun project for screenwriter Erica Li, who understands the appeal.
ERICA LI: In the comic world, you have Superman, Spider-man, Avengers - you guys have a lot. But not enough for martial arts. Up till now, Yeep mun is relatively fresh and, not to be offensive, and there's still room for exploitation.
WANG: We've already seen Yeep mun take down Japanese soldiers, British colonialists, Hong Kong gangsters and rival kung fu masters. Space aliens and robots? You may be next. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.
GREENE: Hansi Lo Wang covers race, ethnicity and culture for NPR's Code Switch team.