By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The “Ip Man” film series, so far, kept fairly close to the legend (and to a certain extent, the life) of Ip Man himself, a real-life Cantonese master of Wing Chun. Ip Man dominated Chinese martial arts during the early half of the 20th century, and taught, among others, a young Bruce Lee.
However, this latest film in the franchise takes off in a different direction. “Master Z: Ip Man Legacy” starts where such films would often end — a wild duel between masters — leaving Ip Man victorious and his rival, Cheung Tin Chi (played by Max Zhang), in the dust.
But the story then follows the vanquished man as he tries to disappear into civilian life. He’s ashamed and disgusted with his failure, and convinced he’ll never practice martial arts again. He settles into running a tiny grocery store.
Of course, it’s a mainstream martial arts film, and it can’t ignore the generally agreed-upon plot features in that genre. A cute kid appears, and is sometimes put in jeopardy, so the audiences’ hearts will jump into their throats. Women must end up in jeopardy for much the same reason. A huge, hulking enemy, seemingly unbeatable, must appear — in this case, that’s drug-smuggler Owen Davidson, played by the half Filipino wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista, best-known for his role as Drax the Destroyer in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” film series.
And most importantly, the hero must be dragged kicking and screaming back into the world of martial arts. The hero cannot escape his own essential heroic nature, no matter how hard he tries.
So Max Zhang’s character hides and resolves never to fight. But fate, in the form of gangsters, drug-runners, corrupt cops, and new friends with their own vulnerabilities, has other plans.
Zhang, who studied Chinese wushu fighting before becoming a star, seems plausible at every phase of his journey. His resolve to change his life shows in the tight lines on his face. But when he lashes out, he convinces utterly.
Michelle Yeoh, a fine film fighter and even better dramatic actress, shines here as the leader of a criminal cabal who’s determined to take her business legit. And that, too, is a common thread in many action films, going at least as far back as the original “Godfather” films from the 1970s. But Yeoh is that extremely rare case of a performer who can fight if the script calls for it, but hardly needs such material to make her case. She isn’t given as much to work with as, say, her crowning performance (without throwing a single punch or kick) in “The Lady,” from 2011. But she can pull you in with her posture, her eyes, and the slightest shift in her lips.
The press kit makes much of guest performances from Tony Jaa, the long-running Thai martial arts master best-known for his “Ong-Bak” saga, and Hong Kong action star Yuen Wah. I was also impressed, though, with Liu Yan and Chrissie Chau as two important female figures, who struggle, in the midst of all the chaos and crime, to find themselves and fit in.
In the end, not surprisingly, action overrules all else. Fists, feet, and furniture go flying in epic battles with twists and turns, some predictable, some less so. The film promises action satisfaction and it delivers. But I was pleasantly surprised by the slices of real-looking lives.
“Master Z: Ip Man Legacy” opens April 12 in Seattle at the Regal Meridian Cinemas, 1501 7th Avenue in downtown Seattle; and the Cinemark in Federal Way. Check local listings for prices, showtimes, and other information.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.