Movie Review: Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013)
I expected little from “Ip Man: The Final Fight.”
It’s directed by Herman Yau, who’s made 70 feature films, of which I was aware of exactly zero. One of his more popular films, at least according to IMDb ratings, is “The Legend is Born: Ip Man,” which was released in 2010, and seemed designed to capitalize on the success of the Donnie Yen “Ip Man” series. This is the sequel to that one, and, yeah, same. Meanwhile, its star, Anthony Wong, is hardly a kung fu master and claims to have been drunk when he accepted the offer.
But it’s good. This Ip Man is older, his stomach troubles more pronounced. His wife comes and goes, dies quickly, and he embarks upon a polite, discreet affair with a nightclub singer, Miss Jenny (Zhao Chuchu), which scandalizes his students. The movie is as much about his students as him. He is the calm center of a flurry of activities and outsized emotions.
Did no one make a movie about Ip Man until 2008? Is that right? There was nothing, and then there was everything:
- 2008: “Ip Man,” with Donnie Yen
- 2010: “Ip Man 2,” with Donnie Yen
- 2010: “The Legend is Born: Ip Man,” with To Yu-hang
- 2013: An Ip Man TV series, with Kevin Chang
- 2013: “The Grandmaster,” directed by Wong Kar-wei, and starring Tony Leung
- 2013: This one
- 2015: “Ip Man 3,” with Donnie Yen
- 2018: “Master Z: Ip Man Legacy,” a spinoff of “Ip Man 3,” with Zhang Jin
- 2019: “Ip Man 4,” with Donnie Yen
According to Ip’s Wiki page, a biopic was long considered:
The idea of an Ip Man biopic originated in 1998 when Jeffrey Lau and Corey Yuen discussed the idea of making a film based on Bruce Lee's martial arts teacher.
Yet for all that, none of these movies say exactly why he moved from Guangdong province to Hong Kong in 1949. Or they fudge it. They say, you know, he was looking for work. But c’mon—1949? That’s the year the communists routed the Kuomintang and took over China. Ip Man, according to Wiki, was an officer in the KMT. So he was fleeing the communists—the party that is now making him a cinematic hero. Irony, irony everywhere.
The movie opens with that—Ip’s arrival in Hong Kong. He has a few tenuous connections and a stellar reputation. Leung Sheung (Timmy Hung) asks him about Wing Chun, almost demanding a demonstration, and Ip calmly says they should eat first. After the meal, he asks for a piece of paper. He lays it on the floor, stands atop it, and tells Sheung to try to knock him off. You know how that ends.
He gathers students—or students gather to him. We learn about them briefly: the factory worker, the cop, the prison guard. Two students get into a fight and Ip Man tells them kung fu is not about starting fights. If he taught them to swim, he says, he wouldn’t want them pushing people into the water, either. Love that.
Little things keep happening. One of Ip’s students—the cop, Tang Sing (Jordan Chan)—is offered a bribe by the corrupt Hong Kong police force and doesn’t know what to do. He goes to Ip, who counsels without suggesting a course. Then another student, Le King (Jiang Luxia), hits a British officer during a union strike and winds up in prison. So Tang uses the bribe money to bribe the British officer to drop the charges.
Much of the movie is like this. It’s episodic—as much about Hong Kong as Ip. Some of his students date, get married, have children. A dinner with old family friends turns horrifying when it’s revealed that the father sold one of his sons to make ends meet. (This supposedly happened to Jackie Chan as a child.) Tang has several encounters with a local gang boss, Dragon (Xiong Xinxin), who takes control of everything inside the “walled city.” Ip must fight a rival master, Ng Chung (longtime HK character actor Eric Tsang), but on the politest of terms. One of Ip’s students opens a Wing Chun school opposite his with a big ceremony and a big sign, and his remaining students are aghast. He shrugs. Life goes on.
Then there’s the Miss Jenny complication. At an outdoor nightclub, some jerks manhandle her, she slaps one of them, they give chase. Ip Man gets in the way. You know how that ends. Later, he helps her write the English-language postal address of a place in San Francisco that caters to Chinese wives—but in helping, he discovers she can’t read or write Chinese, either. As always, he’s polite and discreet, and says, “I hope you find your Mr. Right.” She’s about to drop the letter into the mailbox, then retracts it and smiles to herself. It doesn’t get sent. She’s already found her Mr. Right. It's a sweet scene.
Is he smitten? I certainly was, and became curious what else Zhao Chuchu has done. Not much. But she seems all over the Chinese gossip pages. Was she on a reality TV show? And what exactly breaks up Jenny and Ip Man here? At one point she gives him opium when he’s writhing in pain from stomach troubles. When he recovers, he gets angry, she cries, she apologizes. Ip and his son move in together, and the son, narrating, says, “Then, for some reason, she stopped coming.” We get her deathbed scene later in the movie. It’s quiet, discreet, sweet.
周楚楚: May we all have such complications.
The big battle doesn’t come until about 15 minutes from the end. One of Ip’s former Wing Chun students, Tung, is now a star in Dragon’s arena, and Dragon asks him to throw a fight. He refuses. So Dragon both 1) drugs him, and tells his opponent, Ngai (Ken Lo of “Drunken Master 2”), to 2) kill him. He’s about to do so when Tang Sing intercedes, Tung’s pregnant wife arrives, and Ip, informed by his students, takes control. When Sing tells Ip he can't arrest Ngai because they're inside the walled city and thus outside police jurisdiction, Ip, with hands clasped behind his back, calmly asks, “If I take them out of the city, can you do your job?” You know how that ends.
Bruce Lee, Ip’s most famous student, comes off poorly here. He shows up at the end, a movie star with sunglasses, western friends, a big car and a big attitude. Ip ignores him. Bruce is also played by an actor much less attractive than the real Bruce Lee. It feels like someone is getting back at someone.
I like the very end. We get some Wing Chun philosophy (“One’s attitude should be like a [Chinese] coin, square on the inside and smooth on the edges”), and then old, grainy footage of the real Ip Man, practicing.
It should be one Ip Man too many but I guess I’ll never tire of the story he represents: The martial arts master who doesn’t want to fight; but there’s just too many assholes in the world.