The legendary Hong Kong martial arts master Ip Man is kind of like Journey to the West: Both are the source material for books, manhua, TV series and films that keep on giving. Like Journey, Ip Man and his work have been immortalized in media time and again. There’s Herman Yau’s two-parter, The Legend Is Born: Ip Man; the Anthony Wong-led Ip Man: The Final Fight; and the loosely connected de facto spinoff of director Wilson Yip’s series starring Zhang Jin, Master Z: The Yip Man Legacy. Tony Leung played him in Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster, and there are at least two Chinese TV series based on his life.
Regardless of his reported wish to be done with the role following Ip Man 3 in 2015, actor-producer Donnie Yen returns for one last crunching kick at the can in Yip’s Ip Man 4: The Finale. While not as strong, or nuanced, an entry as any of the three that preceded it, Yen once again proves at 56 to be something of an ageless wonder. Though he’s clearly tempering the number of demanding set pieces squeezed into each of his films and sharing the workload with others, Yen is still the star attraction if his name is above the title. Slated for a Christmas Day release stateside, The Finale will win over action fans with Star Wars fatigue (you can actually see what’s going on here), and Yen’s fanbase in all markets is sure to respond. The film will have a healthy life in targeted release beyond Asia.
The Finale picks up in 1964 with Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man (Yen) going about his business in Hong Kong, doing his best to raise his surly son Jing on his own. Being a teen, Jing tends to get into fights at school and has no interest in studying. An invitation to visit former student Bruce Lee (Chan Kwok-kwan, doing a pretty good Lee) at a tournament in San Francisco provides an opportunity for Ip, who has been diagnosed with cancer, to find Jing a good school and set him up for the coming years.
In California, Ip meets with the Chinese Benevolent Association and its tai chi master Wan Zhong Hua (Wu Yue). In mid-’60s America, a Chinese student wasn’t getting into a good school without a tuition guarantor, and so Ip is compelled to seek a letter of recommendation from the CBA. Naturally, Wan and the other old-school masters are miffed that Ip’s former apprentice Lee is taking martial arts beyond the confines of the Chinese community — he wrote a manual in English! They demand he set the fiery young man right before any letter is written, but Ip declines.
The conflict between the CBA and Ip and Lee’s more forward thinking underpins the rest of the story, which this go around touches on all sorts of thorny — and ongoing — issues, among them isolationism versus integration, racism, privilege and power. As facile and on the nose as some of the dialogue may be (at one point, a particularly incensed suburban housewife demands her husband “have those filthy Chinese deported!”), it’s not historically untrue; better actors might have helped.
When Ip witnesses Wan’s daughter Yonah (Vanda Margraf) fall victim to bullying based on race (by an angry blonde cheerleading rival called Becky, of course), Lee getting into a street dust-up with a gang of white guys with something to prove — “Happens all the time,” he shrugs — and Wan getting harassed by immigration (once again, Becky), he finds himself rethinking what might be best for his son. Yonah helps there too, as she and Wan butt heads much like Ip and Jing do.
Ip Man 4: The Finale is a much more muted film than Yip and Yen’s previous entries. It has less youthful bluster and fewer historical landmarks and is very much about a man facing his own mortality. Some of the best sequences involve Yen internally debating what to tell Jing via long-distance phone call.
Moving the action to the U.S. doesn’t really do much for the franchise aside from providing an excuse to include the likes of Chris Collins (not the New York congressman on his way to jail) as Colin, a marine martial arts instructor (he prefers karate), and Scott Adkins, familiar to any self-respecting martial arts/action movie fan, as frothing, bigoted marine drill sergeant Barton Geddes. That’s not a bad thing, even if it takes nearly 80 minutes to get to the main event: Yen and Adkins throwing down. It is glorious, but their duel is just one of four or five key fights, choreographed by the Don Corleone of action, Yuen Woo-ping, that are as creative as they are thrilling. The masters of the CBA and Colin’s Mid-Autumn Festival Chinatown contest is a highlight; Wu maintains a graceful dignity (and perfect hair) that gives Wan a quiet authority.
Even though the fights are the thing, cinematographer Cheng Siu-keung’s images are effectively bathed in a mid-century wash that makes the film look like it came from an ad in Life magazine, and editor Cheung Ka-fai, one of Hong Kong’s best, keeps the action clear and on track. This time Yen should be finished: The pic ends with an epilogue that references Ip’s 1972 death. There’s nothing in The Finale that needed to be said, but it’s no less engaging for it.
Production company: Tin Tin Film Production
Distributor: Well Go USA
Cast: Donnie Yen, Wu Yue, Scott Adkins, Van Ness, Kent Cheng, Chan Kwok-kwan, Kanin Ngo, Chris Collins, Vanda Margraf
Director: Wilson Yip
Screenwriters: Edmond Wong, Dana Fukazawa, Chan Tai-lee, Jill Leung
Producers: Donnie Yen, Raymond Wong
Executive producers: Edmond Wong, Anita Wong
Director of photography: Cheng Siu-keung
Production designer: Kenneth Mak Kwok-keung
Costume designer: Lee Pik-kwan
Music: Kenji Kawai
Editor: Cheung Ka-fai
Action director: Yuen Woo-ping
Casting: Venetia Suchdev
Sales: Mandarin Motion Pictures
In Cantonese, English