By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
I had to laugh at the first review I found of this latest installment of the “Ip Man” saga, available from Magnet Releasing on Dec. 11. The reviewer suggested that nobody in the film looked like a real fighter.
And that’s worth a guffaw, since whatever the film’s flaws (a slightly too-pat martial arts story curve tucked inside historical intrigue), every fighter in the film looks very much like a real fighter. Dennis To, who competed in wushu tournaments before he ever accepted dramatic film roles—and was at one point the youngest wushu champion in Hong Kong—is seemingly everywhere in the thick of battle, throwing out every limb in combinations which seem (but of course aren’t) completely spontaneous. The fight choreography from Sun Fei makes elegant sense, which is more than I can say for a lot of action films, which seem to put the camera in too close, pull it out too far, or point it at some trivial bit of a larger exercise.
The underpinnings of the story here (the third outing for To as Ip Man) make such an interesting tale, historically, that I almost wished director Li Liming and his co-screenwriter, Shi Chingshui, had opted for a more realistic tack. The Wing Chun master, best known to modern eyes and ears as the man who taught Bruce Lee, really did work as a police officer in his native Foshan starting in 1917. And he really did teach the Wing Chun fighting style to friends, family, and some of his fellow officers.
Not surprisingly, though, realism goes out the window under the gun of martial arts action. Ip Man has to fight his way through a crowd of assassins—and these particular assassins carry deadly weapons. Ip Man has to face insurmountable odds to defeat seemingly-undefeatable warriors. The challenges, all standard orders of business in such a screen story, at least come off fresh and exhilarating. Director Li manages a fresh wrinkle by rapid cutting between one of the film’s set-piece fights, and Ip Man’s steadfast wife Cheung Wing-sing (played by Chang Qinyuan) delivering their oldest child: A wry juxtaposition between the struggle of birth and a struggle to the death.
Further complications ensue. Some revolve around a Chinese gangster boss found dead in his cell. Ip Man gets the blame, and the gangster’s daughter, Qingchuan (Yuan Li Ruo Xin), vows revenge. Western audiences probably won’t know Yuan Li Ruo Xin, with only two earlier films under her belt. But her steely fury and nuanced fighting skills (bolstered by a lifetime of ballet training) make her one of the film’s most commanding presences. Her single-mindedness renders her extremely dangerous, and she doesn’t always reason through her actions. But in battle, she’s never less than breathtaking.
Also, in another nod to history, the Japanese begin showing up in Foshan, as they did elsewhere in China. And they begin making their preferences known. The script gets some mileage out of the Japanese officials’ strutting pride in their own karate fighting style, and how Chinese fighting styles could never equal such mastery. All of them have another thing coming, of course.
And the film, at a brisk (not-quite) 90 minutes, gets to the big finish quickly and easily. I wished for more historical accuracy. I wished for a greater understanding of the period, the setting, and Ip Man’s fascinating life. But the “Kung Fu Master” movies know what it has to do to entertain, and it hits all of its marks. I just wonder if I’m the only one left hoping for just a little bit extra, a deeper bite to its vitality.
Andrew can be reached by firstname.lastname@example.org.