Movie Review: Ip Man 3 (2015)
In the first two “Ip Man” movies, our hero (Donnie Yen) fights Chinese martial arts rivals for the first half, then a foreign devil (a Japanese general, a British boxer) for the second.
“3” seems like it’ll be more of the same. It’s 1959, Chinese gangsters are trying to take over the school where Ip Man’s son, X, goes, and the gang leader is played by Mike Tyson.
Ip Man also has a Wing Chun rival, Cheung (Zhang Jin), the father of a boy X fights then befriends. Cheung pulls a rickshaw but he’s training to be a martial arts master, and he’s got a massive chip on his shoulder. He wants what Ip Man has. At one point, the two talk about Wing Chun teachers and grandmasters. Ip Man is gracious. He says strengths and weaknesses in anyone are normal. Then Cheung ratchets it up:
Cheung [sharply]: How about you, Master Ip?
Ip [smiles]: I’m just a dabbler.
Cheung: If we have the chance, let’s have a friendly match.
Ip [nods]: Sure.
Actually he doesn’t just nod. First he shakes his head, then he nods. It’s like, “This again?” It’s a good, weary moment.
My assumption: Ip Man will fight Cheung in the first half, then they’ll team up to take on Mike Tyson and his gang in the second.
Scratch that. Reverse it.
Do they reverse it because Mike Tyson is more beloved in China than I realized? Here’s an excerpt from “Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China” by Peter Hessler (much recommended). Hessler and his cab driver, Yang, are talking sports in the spring of 2001, as China is vying for the 2008 Olympics:
He told me that Mike Tyson was his favorite American athlete, because the boxer has Chairman Mao’s face tattooed on his arm.
“Why do the Chinese people like Tai Sen?” Driver Yang asked rhetorically. “Because he likes China. If he likes China, China likes him. And he understands China.”
“Does Tyson really understand China?” I asked.
Driver Yang said, “If he doesn’t understand China, why would he put a tattoo like that on his arm?” That was an excellent question and I had no response. Driver Yang smiled. “Tai Sen read four of Chairman Mao’s books while he was in prison,” he said. “I saw it on television.”
Sadly, the temporal switch makes for a worse movie.
Gangster Tyson demands that his lieutenant, Sang (Patrick Tam), take the school. Why do they need it? It’s never said. But Sang has two weeks to get it done.
(BTW: I used to think gangsterish eminent domain was just a facile plot device in Chinese movies but apparently it happens. The Chinese legal system is still in its infancy, and relationships (guanxi) generally trump rule of law—particularly if wheels are greased. People get tossed off their land all the time. Back then, too, Hong Kong was notoriously corrupt.)
Sang is kind of the comic-relief gangster—all red shirt and swagger and not much else. To get the school, he:
- tries to force the principal to sign over the property—but Ip Man intervenes
- chains up the school—but the chains are broken
- sets the school on fire and tries to kidnap the principal—but Ip Man and Cheung intervene
Finally, he and his gang actually kidnap the children and put them in cages (shades of Trump!), forcing Ip Man to arrive at their shipyard hideout and kowtow to save his son’s life. By this point, Cheung has been coopted—he’s taken money to beat up Sang’s former teacher, Master Tin (Hong Kong mainstay Leung Ka-Yan)—but Sang, stupidly, has also kidnapped Cheung’s son. Cheung arrives to free him, glances with apparent shame at Ip Man kowtowing, but is ready to leave. A look from his son forces him to return to help Ip Man battle dozens of gangsters in a battle royale, choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping, that almost makes the movie worth it. When it’s all done, the hapless Hong Kong police, personified by Inspector “Fatso” Po (Kent Cheung), finally arrive, as well as the Hong Kong press, personified by Editor Lee (Babyjohn Choi). The latter makes a hero out of Ip Man, exacerbating Cheung’s resentment. The former articulates the movie’s underlying theme: It’s all the foreigners’ fault.
Even as Sang has his corrupt foreign boss, Inspector Po has his. In fact Po’s boss is in league with Sang’s. The Chinese are just pawns in the game. “You know the foreign devils run Hong Kong,” he tells Ip Man. Ip Man does. But he provides the silver lining for China circa 2015: “All these things we do aren’t for today but for tomorrow.”
Anyway, Tyson now dismisses the incompetent Sang, brings in a Muay Thai fighter (Sarut Khanwilai), and we have a good elevator fight scene reminiscent of (or ripped off from) “Drive.” From there, Ip Man finally confronts Tyson, who, sporting man that he is, makes a deal: If Ip Man lasts three minutes with him, he’ll stop bothering him. He does. And that’s that. The school is now safe.
What’s the rest of the movie about? The rise of Cheung (aided by Editor Lee), and the fall of Ip Man’s wife, Wing-sing (Lynn Hung), who is usually an annoyance in these films—forever urging Ip Man away from the story we came to see. Here, too. She actually slaps him after he rescues their son—because he’s not putting family first. Well, also because she’s dying from cancer. Once he knows this, he takes care of her. As Cheung rises, and calls out Ip Man, Ip Man ignores it all to look after his wife.
Indeed, as “Ip Man 2” recalled “Rocky IV” (hero battles foreign giant after the giant kills colleague/friend), “Ip Man 3” recalls “Rocky II.” Wife doesn’t want husband to fight, she gets sick, he cares for her/sits by her bedside, then she says, in essence, “Hey, why don’t you fight?” Adrian says that All-American phrase: “Win!” Wing-sing is less succinct and sweeter:
Wing-sing: You spend every day with me. It makes me so happy. But I could be happier. ... If it weren’t for my sickness, would you have taken his challenge?
Ip Man [pause]: Yes.
Wing-sing: That’s the Ip Man I love. I’ve taken the liberty of setting a date with him. I haven’t heard you practice in ages. Can I hear that sound again? Just you and me?
So the final battle. How does Ip Man win? With a three-inch punch, which his disciple, Bruce Lee, will make famous throughout the world. Then his wife dies—as she did in real life.
Enter/exit the Dragon
You know who really gets short shrift in this movie? Bruce Lee. And they have the perfect actor to play him. Yes, Chan Kwok-Kwan (“Shaolin Soccer,” “Kung Fu Hustle”) was 40 at the time of filming, rather than 19, as Lee would’ve been in 1959, but just look. 你看：
Pretty amazing, right? And he was all but promised at the end of “2.” But we only see him twice: In the beginning, trying to join Ip Man’s Wing Chun school but seemingly rejected; and later, when Ip Man needs to learn the cha-cha so he can dance with his wife. (Lee, of course, was also the cha-cha king of Hong Kong.) That’s when we learn that Ip Man, holding the door for Lee, wasn’t ushering him out by letting him in. Lee misunderstood. But then so did I; so did everybody. To be honest, in the opening scene, Ip Man comes off as a bit of a dick. It starts the movie off on the wrong foot.
China TV did create a 50-part miniseries starring Chan as Lee—available for streaming, like the “Ip Man’ series, on Netflix—but it’s cheap by American standards, and often dull. What a shame. I can’t imagine another actor this good, whose kung fu is this good, and looking this much like Bruce Lee, coming down the pike anytime soon.