Ip Man has certainly been the cinematic icon in Chinese Cinema recently. Including this one I can count 5 I have spoken about since this blog was started, and I know of at least one other on the way. The Donnie Yen vehicles (of which number 3 in 3D is coming soon) obviously were first out of the traps, and they offered great entertainment, and a clue the maybe Mr Yen could actually act. But they did descend into a little bit of xenophobia coupled with a distasteful pro-chinese rant. Wong Kar Wai may have had the first thought, but the long journey produced a beautiful yet somehow lacking story. Herman Yau gave us an interesting and sweet tale of an early life which all the others somewhat glossed over. And it is Yau again who gives us this tale of Ip Man’s later years. Even when you put them all together they are full of inconsistencies and cinematic constructs, but could Yau once again show that his ability to give heart to a film even when he is obviously operating under a constrained budget?
The rather awkwardly titled “Ip Man: The Final Fight” concerns itself with the latter portion of the life of Ip Man (Anthony Wong), taking us to his time in Hong Kong. Having left his wife (Anita Yuen) and son back in Foshan, he reluctantly starts an informal Wing Chun school up. And it is his relationship with his students, against the social and political backdrop of 1950’s-60’s Hong Kong which takes up the bulk of the film. Coupled with this is a mostly platonic relationship with a Nightclub singer called Jenny (Zhu Chuchu), and the conflicts and friendships between other Schools (mainly Eric Tsang’s Ng Chung) and an untouchable gang leader (Xiong Xinxin).
Front and centre we have the unexpected casting of the always fantastic Anthony Wong. Whilst he rarely fails to deliver in any film, I am glad to report he is quite wonderful here. He manages to maintain the gravitas required of a Master Martial Artist, obviously easily garnering the respect of his disciples, but also able to engender the respect of his equals and his rivals. His relationship with his wife is obviously borne out of a deep love and respect, and even the potentially creepy relationship with the much younger Jenny is handled in a believable manner.
Yau does have a huge secondary cast, and it is fair to say that maybe there are a few too many people on display here, and some of the storylines are simply not given time to breathe and explore. He does however manage to make the members of the supporting cast either pretty good actors (such as the conflicted Policeman played by Jordan Chan) and people who seriously can deliver on the action (such as angry young Jiang Luxia). I will have to counter this by including Gillian Chung who sadly can do neither. Further class is added by Eris Tsang. One of the highlights is easily the fight between Wong and Tsang, as well as their small chat – fans of “Infernal Affairs” will see the chemistry between the two simply has not been diminished. Zhu Chuchu is absolutely beguiling and stunning, but also quite human and certainly the character you have most empathy with.
The fighting itself is pretty good – the film is punctuated by the fights rather than driven by it, and most clashes feel realistic – short and sharp. It certainly isn’t one for the fans of extravagant action choreography, but I think there is still much to satisfy those of you than really like such things.
Even though the film is obviously made on a fraction of the budget available to the Wilson Yip directed movies, is is shot pleasingly, and the sets are full of period detail. In fact this whole look at the sociological and societal changes and pressure during this period of Hong Kong history is actually fascinating – and the film is smart enough to show that whilst Ip Man’s philosophy is laudable, it is far from the solution to all issues. Another highlight is the meal where friends of the Ip’s have to admit they sold their youngest child to make ends meet. There’s nothing punching can do in this situation, all you can do is share a drink and show understanding – whatever your underlying judgement of these actions might be.
The film also finds time to deal with the “Elephant in the Room” of all Ip Man films – Bruce Lee. Now for all sorts of reasons he can’t be named (the biggest one being the hold the Lee family have on the use of Bruce Lee in any media outing), but this one is pretty clear about the general feeling that Lee somewhat used and abused Wing Chun for personal gain. It’s a small moment, and not exactly pivotal, but quite possibly the bravest any film-maker has been when attempting to show this story.
Is the film perfect? Far from it. It really is too busy at times, and fails to provide conclusions to many of the situations raised (such as what did happen after the big Union meeting to the actual situation under discussion?). I could have done with possibly a little more time with Ip and his son, and maybe the effects of death of his wife should have been given a few minutes. However, it is officially my favourite Ip Man film, because even though it probably plays fast and loose with the real truth, it puts the man in some kind of historical context outside of simply being Bruce Lee’s teacher and someone who suffered at the hands of the Japanese. But it still makes sure he remains a man, and not a mythical figure. The character Wong brings to the screen is not a perfect man, he makes mistakes. But I bet you wish you had known him. Very Highly Recommended!