Lately, Bruce Lee’s teacher Ip Man has been on the receiving end of many attempts to portray his life to the big screen. The Wilson Yip-Donnie Yen "Ip Man" collaboration brought superficial, crowd-pleasing, entertaining action but fails to bring forth the man behind its story. It was more of Donnie being Donnie than Master Ip. Wong Kar-Wai’s “The Grandmaster” was an artful presentation that depicted how the principles of martial arts could be applied to life applications. It was a good film, but it didn’t hit the right stuff to form a biopic about Master Ip. The Wing Chun master also inspired a TV series, a prequel “The Legend is Born” and even a stage drama in Singapore. I suppose these are all attempts to create another folk hero for Chinese audiences that brings people to theater seats.
Well, despite its somewhat cheesy title, Herman Yau’s “Ip Man: The Final Fight” may be the best movie in this film of fictional biographies. This time, Master Ip is not an romanticized ass kicker or an action hero, but rather, Yau instead focuses on the humanity that is within Master Ip. It feels rather more authentic, natural that it even gets the look of Hong Kong right during this period from the late 40’s onto the 60’s.
Ip Man (Anthony Wong) is a struggling kung fu teacher in Hong Kong after he lost his fortune in Foshan. Here, the man meets the students who would make an impact in his life (played by Gillian Chung, Jiang Luxia, Timmy Hung, and Marvel Chow). Issues of poverty surround them, but they all manage to come together as some kind of family. One student is a cop named Tang Sing (Jordan Chan) and despite his instinct to be true to the principles taught him, hardship often lead him to take bribes. Yau seems to lean towards the portrayal of real-life Hong Kong during this time, than making Master Ip some kind of Huo Yuan Jia. He humanizes the narrative by illuminating his viewers with Ip Man’s values and principles, and how his story could paint a picture of the issues of British-colonized Hong Kong.
It was an approach that certainly felt more authentic with its simplicity. It carried themes as to how the teacher teaches his students, but a good teacher also learns from them. Master Ip’s principles come in the form of his response to the world around him. He is shown as a man of peace, that he would only engage in combat when truly needed. I know it may seem a little cliché, but the way it was executed was well-conceived, as his responses often come from the form of a loved one, his wife, Wing Shing (Anita Yuen) and later on, an illiterate singer that he befriends (Zhou Chuchu). His influence in the lives of his students also come into bear. They seek to stay true to his teachings, and yet, there would be times that would test their own principles. Students may stray and some may stay true, not for the lack of trying but merely their needs. These things were brought more into the light with the characters of Tang Sing and Wong Tung (played by Jordan Chan and Marvel Chow) as they took more of the spotlight in the story’s exposition. Yes, the screenplay may feel a little fragmented and some details were lacking, but with the inclusion of the voice over supposedly narrated by Master Ip’s son, it does strike a note as a biopic.
Anthony Wong carries most of the film’s burden as Master Ip. He plays a more humble, older, low-key portrayal that makes him feel more real. Those who’ve seen photos of the renowned master know that he does not look like Donnie Yen the action star or the heartthrob, Tony Leung, and Wong makes his appearance much closer to the man he is set to portray. Wong also does quite well in the action sequences, and they were used to express the values that he made his foundation. His duel with another Master (Eric Tsang who plays Master Ng) expressed a lot of the principles and the movements of the Wing Chun. The moves also felt more realistic, and spoke more to the spirit of Wing Chun, unlike Donnie Yen’s more flamboyant approach with the Sammo Hung rendered fight choreography. As expected, the film has a fair amount of students vs. students and students against masters encounters to keep the film from becoming too dramatic.
Not to say that the film did not do its part for showmanship, since the climactic final duel between Ip Man and the man called “Dragon” (Xiong Xin-Xin) may feel a little more stylized than most of the action scenes, but it proved its worth for an exclamation point. It was a nice approach to also include the ravaging of 1960’s Typhoon Wanda into the encounter. Yes, the martial arts skills come in full display, as a lion dance becomes a free-for-all with a villainous Master Ngai (Ken Lo) shows his stuff amid all the wooden poles. The fight sequences were well balanced and placed, as the more the movie went, the more exciting the encounters became. It was also a nice approach at humor when a journalist exaggerated the reaches of Ip Man’s skills, as if to make fun of what the public sees as superficial entertainment.
Before the film’s close, there is a reference to Bruce Lee, without the curious mention of his name. I am not sure, but it seemed to say that Lee was a self-promoter and would do anything to promote himself with the use of Wing Chun and Ip Man for personal gain. I may be mistaken, but the portrayal of Lee is telling; he embraces fame while Master Ip, the superior master is content with just standing amid a crowd. His more humble nature against Lee’s more advantageous approach. Herman Yau’s Ip Man does not idealize him nor makes him into an action hero, but instead, he focuses on his humility, discipline and the ability to be true to his values. I am not sure, the title “the Final Fight” may be catchy but it feels a little out of place for a movie that sought to bring forth the humble Master Ip. HighlyRecommended! [4 Out of 5 Stars]