IP MAN: KUNG FU MASTER (2019) review

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Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s Ip Man 4: The Finale has come sandwiched in between two straight-to-VOD cash-ins. The first one was Fu Li Wei’s Ip Man and Four Kings, and now comes, from the same production company (Kai Pictures), Li Li Ming’s Ip Man: Kung Fu Master, starring Dennis To as the grandmaster. Of course, this is far from former Wushu champion To’s first go at the iconic martial artist: after playing bit parts in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man and Ip Man 2, he had gone one to star as a young Master Ip in Herman Yau’s modestly successful Ip Man: The Legend is born, before quite amusingly spoofing the character in Jeff Lau’s Kung Fu League. Interestingly, Kung Fu Master is the first Ip Man film to mention his career as a policeman, a veracious detail of his life that’s also full of dramatic potential. Indeed, Ip was a police captain in Foshan for a few years, before and after the Sino-Japanese war. That, however, is where the film’s commitment to reality ends: this time, Captain Ip is framed for the murder of ruthless but honorable mobster Third Father (Michael Wong), and targeted for vengeance by his dangerous daughter (Wanliruo Xin). Forced to quit the force, he must soon also contend with the arrival of the Japanese army in Guangzhou.

For a straight-to-VOD effort, this is a rather visually-polished film: sure there’s a telling lack of street scenes, which makes the film look like it takes place in a deserted resort rather than bustling Foshan, and the Japanese invasion of Foshan is comes in the shape of one officer and a dozen soldiers. But the editing is solid and the cinematography passably elegant, a definite notch above Fu Li Wei’s Ip Man and Four Kings. Still, the plot – while making a basic amount of sense indeed – is devoid of pace, sweep, or any engaging drama, and pilfers previous Ip Man films (the end fight pits Ip against the Japanese officer/Karateka who killed his friend, just like in the 2008 franchise-starter), other Donnie Yen films (Ip wears a black suit and a black mask to pummel Japanese devils like in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen), and previous martial arts classics (there’s a drunken master).

However, the fighting is probably the best in a Chinese straight-to-VOD film since The Bravest Escort Group. It’s crisply edited, favors long takes, and there’s a refreshing sense of ambition to the action directing, a doomed but admirable attempt at rivaling the Wilson Yip film. The opening scene sees Captain Ip go up against a hundred hatchet-wielding henchmen; while it inevitably relies a lot on the ‘flailing background fighters’ trope (wherein the hero fights multiple adversaries only because most of them just wait their turn while flailing around), it’s nevertheless a fine piece of action directing, with many a nod to Yuen Woo Ping’s oeuvre, especially the “Burly Brawl” from Matrix Reloaded. Later, Ip Man fends off dozens of attacking henchmen right outside of the bedroom in which his wife is giving birth to their first child, all the while trying to get a bucket of hot water to the midwife. Subsequently, an old master fights Ip without leaving his rocking chair. That’s not even mentioning an excellent pole fight where Dennis To’s skill truly shines. Action director Sun Fei is clearly a talent to watch, and his brand of choreographing is meant for the big screen.

As Ip Man, Dennis To isn’t much more charismatic now than he was nine years ago in Herman Yau’s film. He’s a fine screen fighter, but a blank, weightless presence, and his amusing turn as a sham Ip Man in Kung Fu League will ironically remain his most interesting contribution to the role. Michael Wong cuts a strong figure: with age, he’s streamlined his once cheesy brand of acting, and playing edgy authority figures unexpectedly becomes him. But the minor revelation here is Wanliruo Xin as a vengeful mob daughter who ends up Ip Man’s ally. Feisty and dangerous but riddled with doubts, she steals the film from To whenever she’s given the chance.

Long Story Short: Abundant and unexpectedly ambitious fight scenes, coupled with solid production values (by Chinese straight-to-VOD standards at least) make Ip Man: Kung Fu Master an entertaining footnote in the Grandmaster’s filmic mythos, despite a lazy and derivative plot, and Dennis To’s blank presence. **1/2

 

 

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