Less biopic, more a muddled if entertaining fever dream of Donnie Yen’s finest moments…
You might have thought when Donnie Yen made it clear that Ip Man 4: The Finale would be his final portrayal of the eponymous character – not for the first time, I might add – that the fascination with this real-life grandmaster of Wing Chun might finally have faded. The series of films he made with director Wilson Yip had turned Ip Man from a figure often relegated on screen to being known as the man who taught Bruce Lee martial arts, to a lead character in his own right. The first film’s phenomenal success, both domestically and internationally, bore sequels, spin-offs and countless cash-ins. From TV series to various films, including Yuen Woo-ping’s Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, Herman Yau’s The Legend Is Born: Ip Man and Ip Man: The Final Fight and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (which admittedly had been in development for a very long time). It seems we still can’t get enough of him, even if historical fact becomes ever more tangential.
Li Liming’s Ip Man: Kung Fu Master takes one genuine detail often glossed over in those representations, Ip’s time as a police officer, as a starting point – though from there on in arguably takes the phrase ‘dramatic licence’ to new levels. Dennis To returns to the role having previously played him in The Legend Is Born and Kung Fu League, while Hong Kong legend Michael Wong cameos as San Ye, the leader of a notorious Axe Gang (which will no doubt have you thinking of Kung Fu Hustle). Set in a similar period to Wilson Yip’s first and Wong’s only entry, the 1940s. After a few seconds of the predictable scenes of training with a wooden dummy, we’re quickly thrust into a showdown between Ip and the gang, as he faces up against seemingly hundreds of San Ye’s minions.
Bloodthirsty and villainous as he is, San Ye refuses to allow the sales of drugs to the population. It soon transpires that the Japanese are using that old colonial tool of oppression, opium, to manipulate the masses and control the police. Here the timeline gets somewhat fuzzy, as Ip returned to duty after the Second Sino-Japanese War, but the involvement of the Japanese military and influence suggests this takes place during the conflict. (To be fair, this period is always left rather vague due to Ip’s involvement with the Kuomintang being somewhat problematic.) But hey, let’s not get too hung up on that… as we take a full-on sidestep into fiction, with Ip donning a black mask to deal out the justice he can’t as an officer. Seemingly conflating Donnie Yen’s portrayal as Ip Man and his portrayal as Chen Zhen in Legend of the Fist, the role originally played by Bruce Lee in Fist Of Fury. Now hang on… what?
Throughout Dennis To, originally picked for a glancing likeness to Donnie Yen, does a decent job in the lead, all be it in a role requiring little more than a register stuck in ‘stoic’. Hong Kong film fans of a certain age will get a kick out of seeing Michael Wong, the dubbing not so much. The cast is filled out with actors best known for television work, including Yuan Li Ruoxin (The Rules Of Love) as San Ye’s feisty dual axe-wielding daughter Qingchuan and Tong Xiaohu (The Myth tv series) with his overly comic police chief. There’s a decent budget on show, with production and costume design hardly looking cheap, though the lighting in Guo Lei’s cinematography often feels more like a television production, as does the hyperactive music.
It’s action director Sun Fei, whose previous credits include assisting on Jeff Lau’s Kung Fu League and Herman Yau’s Kung Fu Angels, who saves the day, utilising To’s prowess. There’s that initial showdown, as Ip is tasked with making his way through the crowds and up the floors of the building, which feels like a sideways nod to Game Of Death and Tower Of Death (aka Game Of Death 2). The axe gang also turn up at Ip’s home just as his wife is going into labour, with most of the action taking place on a staircase. A friendly fight with Ip’s friend, seated throughout, is a nice homage to the close-up handwork of Yuen Woo-ping. Ip also turns up at an opportune moment as Qingchuan’s own gang decide to turn on her and side instead with the Japanese gangster, fighting them off with a pole. Yet unlike the usual pacing, where each fight might ramp up from the last to a thrilling conclusion, the opposite happens. By the time we reach an outdoor tournament between Ip and a Japanese general, the spit of the finale scene in Ip Man, it all feels a bit underwhelming.
Perhaps much of that is down to the primary focus for the film, having debuted on streaming platform Youku in December 2019. It’s probably fair to say that China is leading the way in changing habits for how viewers interact with new technology. High-speed networks, easily accessible from anywhere, make streaming the most popular way to engage with content, but that also means viewers tend to consume it in small chunks rather than in so-called box set binges. Watching 15 minutes of it here and there, on bus rides or underground train hops, meaning the content itself needs to grab the viewer. Where often action fans may complain a film might take a while to get started, here the intensity is ramped up from the beginning, feeling more like a trailer, and rarely lets up, at least for the first half.
Meanwhile, the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense. The result is a film that plays more like a fever dream you might have after falling asleep watching a mainly Donnie Yen marathon. With some Stephen Chow. And maybe The Grandmaster. Oh, and perhaps V For Vendetta too? It’s crazy enough to be entertaining, well just about. In some ways, it’s almost a throwback to the zanier corners of the Hong Kong film industry when it was at its height.
It’s obvious that filmmakers of this generation have a lot of love for the Hong Kong films of the past. The streaming platforms have recently revisited such favourites as Zu Warriors and A Chinese Ghost Story, with Lin Zhenzhao’s take on the latter, The Enchanting Phantom, almost a shot for shot remake of the popular 80s version. Li’s previous effort was a take on Fong Sai Yuk, Fang Shi Yu: Gai shi ying xiong, also known as Matchless Hero Fang Shiyu. His following film sticking to the familiar ground of Young Ip Man: Crisis Time, there’s something to be said for the director keeping to martial arts films. The film ends by repeating one of its opening lines: “Kung fu, why do we practice it?” It seems the only sensible answer is, “To make more Ip Man films”…