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There seems to be no end in sight for the lucrative Ip Man film series, which to date counts at least five biopics of the legendary kung fu master who trained Bruce Lee in the art of Wing Chun. The fame of the real-life Ip Man, who died in 1972, spread far beyond Chinese borders with January’s release of Wong Kar-wai’s romantic hit The Grandmaster, a reflective auteur actioner which set the bar extremely high as far as international audiences are concerned. Opening this year’s Hong Kong Film Festival, Herman Yau’s Ip Man – The Final Fight is an enjoyable if far less sophisticated tale that nostalgically taps into Hong Kong cinema of yesteryear, while still delivering considerable excitement in the fight scenes. Offshore, it may hitch a ride with dyed-in-the-wool martial arts fans on the coattails of The Grandmaster, but more likely will get lost in the shadow.
For the record, Wilson Yip directed the acclaimed 2008 Ip Man starring Donnie Yen, which focused on the master’s early life in Foshun; it was soon followed by the high-grossing Ip Man 2. Producer Raymond Wong has announced the imminent release of a third installment in 3D. Meanwhile, veteran Herman Yau directed the 2010 The Legend is Born – Ip Man with Dennis To portraying the master as a teenager learning his craft in China, effectively a prequel to the other films.
Still, none of the pictures, even those made with the consultation of Ip Man’s son Ip Chun, like The Final Fight, attempt anything like a rigorous biopic. Each reworks the main character into a mythic mold. Here, the focus is on the moral authority that an aging, Zen-like master exerts over his pupils during a very confused historical period in British-controlled Hong Kong of the 1950s.
Engaging veteran actor Anthony Wong plays an ironic older Ip Man who arrives in Hong Kong from the mainland as the curtain rises. His pretty wife Wing Sing soon follows him. They’ve lost their wealth and part of their family in China during the Sino-Japanese war and are looking to make a new, if humble, start. They are at once taken under the wing of an adoring group of working-class students who are passionate about learning the Chinese discipline of Wing Chun. Coming from all walks of life, these earnest young folk are involved in the politics of the day, including union strikes and clashes with the police, and a stand-off with organized crime.
Without really trying, Ip soon gathers a strong school around him. One of his pupils is a local cop (Jordan Chan) who is sorely tempted by bribes. Another, the leader of the restaurant union, offers Ip a scenic terrace where he can hold lessons. A young woman student is a firebrand union leader who urges on a mass of starving workers in a protest march that ends in a fierce battle with the police. When she is arrested, the local cop uses the bribe money he has ambivalently accepted to re-bribe the British and get her out of jail.
Chan’s cop is a full-fledged character and the most memorable of Ip’s students, even though he ignores the master’s cryptic moral advice and eventually throws in his lot with the scarred crime lord Dragon in an unholy alliance that allows him to rise to the top as chief inspector, but on Dragon’s payroll. He’s a key participant in the closing free-for-all mentioned in the film’s title, which takes place at an illegal boxing ring and in the eerie alleyways of Dragon’s walled slum. When a clean-cut young boxer who rose to fame with Wing Chun refuses to throw a fight, Dragon orders him killed in the ring. Improbably, his wife gets wind that he is in danger and Ip Man appears on the scene with his whole school of fighters for a satisfying action finale. All this takes place during a typhoon that sweeps the picturesque streets with falling signs and blowing litter.
Wong is such a fine, subtle actor that it comes as a surprise to find him a superb martial artist as well, as he convincingly demonstrates the superiority of Ip Man’s technique over competing schools, like old Ng’s White Crane style (actor-producer-director Eric Tsang in a happy cameo).
One could wish for a little more realism and a little less glossing over of Ip’s relationship to the lovely, illiterate young singer Jenny (an able if impossibly saintly Zhou Chuchu). Their platonic friendship, much snubbed by his prudish students, gives way to a sentimental ending that is anyway well-handled by the actors. It’s she who introduces him to opium when he’s doubled-up in pain, but it is made to seem an accidental, one-off indulgence and not the serious long-term addiction it was rumored to be.
What is not covered up is the dire poverty of the times, affecting not just the main characters but also a family the Ips know who are forced to sell one of their six children to feed the rest. Here again, Wong wiggles out of a potentially schmaltzy moment with a quiet, self-controlled, but very human reaction. In a scene that rhymes with Jenny offering him a glass of liquid opium, he acknowledges his friends’ pain and temporarily assuages it by pouring out more booze. Given everyone’s utter poverty, there’s little more that can be done.
Deliberately old-fashioned lighting and production design paint a quaint Old-World city shot on a studio backlot. The colorful streets hung with signs make an apt setting for some of the mass fight scenes between Ip Man’s students and various malefactors, whose West Side Story feeling is increased by Chun Hung Mak’s overblown score. In a delightful moment, Bruce Lee, the master’s most famous student, returns from Hollywood as a warm-hearted but naive star in a shining Rolls Royce, which Ip Man politely declines to ride in.
Venue: Hong Kong Film Festival, Mar. 17, 2013.
Production companies: Emperor Motion Pictures, Pegasus Taihe Entertainment
Cast: Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang, Gillian Chung, Jordan Chan
Director: Herman Yau
Screenwriter: Erica Lee
Producers: Checkley Sin, Albert Lee
Director of photography: Kwong-hung Chan
Production designer: Raymond Chan
Costumes: Thomas Chong
Editor: Wai Chiu Chung
Music: Chun Hung Mak
Sales Agent: Emperor Motion Pictures
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