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.

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IP MAN 4: THE FINALE (2019) review

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Eleven years after his career was both boosted and defined by the resounding success of Wilson Yip’s Ip Man, Donnie Yen is back for a final time as the grandmaster of Wing Chun. Following the death of his wife, Ip Man is diagnosed with head and neck cancer; his son Jing wants to become a martial arts master himself, but Man wants him to attend university instead, and sensing his end approaching fast, he travels to San Francisco to get him enrolled in a university, hoping the expatriation will teach him independence. There, he meets his former student Bruce Lee, now a revered teacher himself, but frowned upon by the more traditional kung fu masters of Chinatown for daring to instruct non-Chinese in the ways of Chinese martial arts. Chief among these traditionalists is Tai Chi Master Wan (Wu Yue), the head of the Chinese Benevolent Association, whose recommendation is crucial in getting Ip Jing accepted into university. Masters Ip and Wan butt heads over the issue of spreading Chinese martial arts to the West, but a common enemy soon emerges: racist Marine instructor Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins) who deeply resents the attempts by American-born Chinese soldier Hartmann (Vanness Wu) to have Wing Chun included to Marine training, and sends Karate master Collin (Chris Collins) to Chinatown in an attempt to humiliate Chinese martial arts.

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IP MAN AND FOUR KINGS (2019) short review

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Years after the Ip Man trend faded, and weeks before Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s hotly anticipated Ip Man 4 arrives on the big screen, here’s a straight-to-VOD cash-in starring Michael Tong in the titular role. Here, the grandmaster of Wing Chun is wrongly accused of murder and must both clear his name and break a human-trafficking ring; for this he needs to earn the respect in combat of the “Four Heavenly Kings”: the heads of the gambling, prostitution, alcohol and catering syndicates of the city. Fu Li Wei’s Ip Man and Four Kings is a cheap affair of course, unfolding in sets alternatively bare and slightly-anachronistic, borrowing music in distracting ways (Gabriel Yared and Stéphane Moucha’s score to the German classic The Lives of Others pops up at some point, so does Brad Fiedel’s famous Terminator rhythm), and with fights over-edited in a way that suggests shooting time-constraints. The film starts with a “same-same but different” rip-off of the famed ‘rainy nighttime street’ fight from Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmasters, down to the slow-mo stepping into puddles and the collapsing steel gate, and indeed Michael Tong’s Ip Man has the same white hat as Tony Leung’s Chiu Wai. Yet from then on, it borrows much more from the Wilson Yip/Donnie Yen films’ grammar of evil gweilos and corrupt cops, even acknowledging the events of Ip Man 1 & 2. Tong makes for a passable Master Ip, and would probably have been a fine one with a better script and better production values. And while the fights are sometimes marred by silly wirework, conspicuous under-cranking and the aforementioned over-editing, they’re plentiful in the second half, and solidly entertaining once expectations have been lowered. But who wouldn’t lower expectations before watching a Chinese straight-to-VOD cash-in? **

MASTER Z: THE IP MAN LEGACY (2018) review

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One of the most memorable characters in the Ip Man franchise, ambitious Wing Chun master Cheung Tin Chi (Max Zhang), gets his own well-deserved spin-off in Yuen Woo Ping’s Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy. After being defeated – behind closed doors – by Ip man at the end of the third installment, the humbled Cheung is now living peacefully with his son in Hong Kong, where he owns a small grocery store. His days as a martial arts teacher are over, and so is his side-job as a thug, which doesn’t sit well with his former employer (Yuen Wah). Cheung can’t stay out of trouble for long: after he defends bar hostesses Julia (Liu Yan) and Nana (Chrissie Chau) against local mobster Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng) and his henchmen, his store is burnt down as retribution. Now homeless and tracked down by a mysterious assassin (Tony Jaa) working for his former employer, Cheung is helped by Fu (Shi Yanneng), the owner of a local bar, for whom he starts working as a waiter. And two dangerous figures loom large over him: mobster Tso Ngan Kwan (Michelle Yeoh), the sister of Tso Sai Kit, and Owen Davidson (Dave Bautista), a restaurant owner and philanthropist who’s also a drug trafficker.

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KUNG FU LEAGUE (2018) review

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Bringing together four martial arts folk heroes in a time-travel adventure: it’s an idea both far-fetched and obvious – an oxymoron that Jeff Lau embodies film after film. And so Kung Fu League unites Wong Fei Hung (no introduction needed), Huo Yuan Jia (most notably portrayed by Jet Li in Ronny Yu’s Fearless), his most famous student Chen Zhen (who really existed but was given a fictional heroic fate in Lo Wei’s Fist of Fury) and Ip Man (no introduction needed either, not even a discreet wikipedia link). It doesn’t matter that these grandmasters are played by their respective ‘Plan B’ actors (Vincent Zhao instead of Jet Li, Dennis To instead of Donnie Yen, Chan Kwok Kwan instead of Bruce Lee…): the curiosity remains strong.

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