Legendary Wing Chun master and Bruce Lee instructor Ip Man is the gift that keeps on giving to Hong Kong cinema, as the man’s teachings and influence are the cornerstone of equally legendary choreographer Yuen Woo-ping’s period martial arts actioner Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy. On the heels of Herman Yau’s The Legend Is Born – Ip Man and Ip Man: The Final Fight, Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster and Wilson Yip’s Donnie Yen-led Ip Man trilogy — all released within the last decade — Yuen spins off Master Z from Yip’s final entry featuring Ip’s last challenger.
Working from a script by the team that penned the trilogy, produced by Yen and blessed with Zhang Jin reprising his role as loser Cheung Tin-chi, all the elements for a swift, creative wuxia entertainment are present and accounted for, among them exciting fights, luscious 1960s costume design and So. Much. Property. Damage. Master Z may not do the business of Yip’s trilogy, but a decent festival run and more than respectable box office in the markets where Ip Man succeeded is a given, particularly with Yuen’s name (The Matrix, Kill Bill) attached. The only downside could be Ip Man overkill: A fourth entry in Yip’s series is on the horizon.
When Master Z begins, defeated Wing Chun challenger Cheung Tin-chi has learned a valuable lesson for his hubris and settled into a life as The Equalizer of ’60s Hong Kong. Finally tired of the mercenary gig, he opens a humble grocery store and focuses on raising his son Fung. While making his deliveries one morning, Tin-chi has a run-in with a battered opium fiend, Nana (Chrissie Chau), and her best friend, Julia (Liu Yan), as the women are fleeing from drug-dealing thug Kit (Kevin Cheng). He helps them out, but it lands him on the radar of both the corrupt British police and Kit’s gang. Kit is touchy about the lack of respect he incurs, chiefly from his sister Kwan (Michelle Yeoh, kicking ass in ’60s bouffant), who runs the Cheung Lok triad their father founded and who wants to go legitimate. Infuriated by his public beat down at the hands of Tin-chi, Kit burns his shop and house to the ground. Tin-chi encounters Julia a second time after the fire, who in turn offers the two a place to stay with her brother Fu (Naason), owner of the Gold Bar on the innovatively named Bar Street.
Yuen and action choreographer Yuen Shun-yi get things started at about the three-minute mark, when Tin-chi tells his mercenary handler he’s done, and never really lets the film slow down. But amid combat and wire work, writers Edmond Wong and Chan Tai-lee efficiently set up the rest of the story, most of which anyone with even a passing familiarity with the genre will recognize instantly: Kit’s a hothead who believes Cheung Lok needs to be expanding its illegal dealings, not abandoning them; Nana is a junkie and therefore as good as dead; the colonial police are the heavy hand of the ruling elite (whether that’s a reference to the 1960s or now is up for debate); Fu is an honorable man who just wants to keep his head down and stay on the good side of big spending gwailos; Julia isn’t married; and single dad Tin-chi has a son.
Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy doesn’t have much on its mind besides delivering on fights — and in that aspect it succeeds. Viewers looking for an esoteric portrait of a master can check out Yau’s films, those who prefer a bit of muted hagiography can go to Yip, and the art house crowd has Wong. The film’s tangential connection to Ip Man gives Yuen the freedom to mix up the tone and themes, and he does so in baby steps. No one is completely right or wrong in Master Z, but Tin-chi suffers no ambiguities. Zhang, who broke out in The Grandmaster and SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, finally gets a chance to demonstrate some swagger and sex appeal in his most engaging lead performance yet, and in a perfect world it would make him a bigger star; one that could fill the gaps in Hong Kong wuxia scene.
Just as unambiguous is Dave Bautista’s Owen Davidson, an American businessman in Hong Kong and in the thick of the heroin trade. Most nuanced is Yeoh’s Kwan, who must navigate the lines between what’s good for her business, keeping her reckless brother in check and loyalty to him. And the sometimes-awkward relationship between Hong Kong and its various overlords is summed up by the reliable Philip Keung as a cop who does as he’s told until he doesn’t.
The film is technically sound (even if the production could only locate one period-appropriate VW?), though the abrupt ending is a bit of a letdown that smacks of lazy writing, and Day Tai’s soundtrack is occasionally off the mark. Overall, however, the lush production design by Raymond Chan, Joyce Chan’s swanky ’60s costuming and some astoundingly clever set pieces — a duel between Tin-chi and one of Kit’s thugs atop of a strip of neon signs, a brilliantly old-school four-way fight at Cheung Kok’s offices, a whiskey glass tango with Yeoh — more than make up for any plot flaws, with the exception of the shameful underuse of Tony Jaa as a mysterious assassin.
Production company: Mandarin Motion Pictures
Cast: Max Zhang, Liu Yan, Michelle Yeoh, Naason, Kevin Cheng, Dave Bautista, Patrick Tam, Chrissie Chau, Philip Keung, Brian Thomas Burrell, Adam Pak, Tony Jaa
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Screenwriters: Edmond Wong, Chan Tai-lee
Producers: Raymond Wong, Donnie Yen
Executive producers: Edmond Wong, Anita Wong
Directors of photography: Seppe Van Grieken, David Fu
Production designer: Raymond Chan
Costume designer: Joyce Chan
Editors: Kong Chi-leung, Chow Kai-pong
Music: Day Tai
Casting: Cheyenne Peng
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
World sales: Mandarin Motion Pictures
In Cantonese, dubbed