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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SUPER BODYGUARD (aka THE BODYGUARD, aka IRON PROTECTOR) (2016) review

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Brazenly declaring itself “the best martial arts film in the past 20 years”, the very same claim made by the director’s previous film, The King of the Streets, Yue Song’s Super Bodyguard follows Wu (Yue), a mysterious rambler who, having just arrived in the city of Lengcheng, both saves the life of wealthy businessman Li and reunites with his long lost friend Jiang (Shi Yanneng), who was raised by the same master but left for the city years ago, jealous and angry at not being taught the same ‘Way of the 108 Kicks’ as Wu. Now Jiang is the owner of a bodyguard agency, and he assigns Wu to protect Feifei (Li Yufei), the daughter of businessman Li. A spoiled brat, she’s initially reluctant to be followed around by the uncouth Wu, who wears 25-pound steel boots and thinks a wine’s vintage is its expiration date. But after he saves her from a kidnapping attempt, she warms to him and as the two go in hiding, feelings develop. Yet Wu’s past haunts him, and Jiang’s anger is still alive…

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THE FINAL MASTER (aka THE MASTER) (2015) review

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The Master is the third film of Wu Xia author, martial artist, film critic, Taoist scholar and film director Xu Haofeng, after the intriguing but often willfully abstruse The Sword Identity (2011) and Judge Archer (2012). Adapted once again from one of his short stories, it takes place in 1932 and follows Chen Shi (Liao Fan), a Wing Chun master from Guangdong who arrives in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin with hopes of opening a martial arts school. While arranging a marriage of interest with a young waitress (Song Jia), he’s also initiated by aging grandmaster Zheng (Chin Shih Chieh) to the city’s rules on opening a new school: he who wishes to do so must first defeat eight of the nineteen established martial arts schools. However, if one were to manage such a feat, he would then have to be defeated and cast out of Tianjin, to preserve the city’s martial arts reputation. Thus Chen Shi is advised by old master Zheng to find himself a pupil that he will groom, and who will then fight on his behalf – and be cast out instead of him. Chen chooses an ambitious and gifted young coolie (Song Yang) to be his disciple and scapegoat, the first move in a protracted game of Go involving not only the outsider master and his pupil, but also old master Zheng, his former disciple (now a KMT Admiral’s aide), and the powerful head of Tianjin’s martial arts syndicate (Jiang Wenli).

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An Interview with Actor-Stuntman-Director Bruce Fontaine

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Bruce Fontaine was once a Gweilo actor, that is to say one of those Caucasian performers who were hired in Hong Kong’s action cinema heyday to play – often villainous – supporting parts. A high-level practitioner of Wushu, he appeared in some of the most famous films of that time: Operation CondorOnce Upon A Time In ChinaShe Shoots Straight… But when the well of classic Hong Kong action dried up, his career endured, as he took the knowledge acquired from working with the likes of Jackie Chan, Corey Yuen or the Sammo Hung stunt team, and applied it to a career in Canadian stuntwork, quickly rising through the ranks to become a stunt coordinator, including for American Video Game developer Electronic Arts. And yet his main ambition remained unfulfilled: to direct a feature film. In 2015, he kickstarted the third phase of his film career by completing and premiering Beyond Redemption, an action thriller infused with the soul of Hong Kong action cinema.
From martial artist and Hong Kong film fan to Hong Kong film fighter, from stuntman to director, his is a story of wish-fulfillment through hard work and passion. Now in the preparatory stages for his second feature film, Bruce Fontaine was kind enough to answer my questions.

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KUNG FU FIGHTER (2007) short review

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Featuring the same sets, costumes and many of the same cast-members as Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, but only a quarter of its budget and a tenth of its creativeness, Yip Wing-Kin’s Kung Fu Fighter also borrows heavily from the Ma Wing Jing story, as told in the Shaw Brothers film Boxer from Shantung (1972) and Corey Yuen’s Hero (1997). Thus we follow a young country bumpkin (a vacant-eyed Vanness Wu) who comes to Shanghai in search of his father and ends up falling for a beautiful cabaret singer (Emme Wong), getting entangled in a turf war between mob bosses (Chan Kwok Kwan and Tin Kai Man), getting himself a portly sidekick (Lam Chi Chung) and meeting a kind master (an endearing Bruce Leung) who may know a thing or two about his father. It’s a puzzlingly half-baked film, in which some interesting visual flourishes and good choreography (by Fan Siu Wong) get undermined by a complete lack of focus and dramatic momentum and an excess of cartoonish visual trickery, again aping Stephen Chow’s film. The final fight scene is actually quite enjoyable, as Fan Siu Wong injects some charisma into the film by popping up as a dangerous grandmaster, and up-and-comer Max Zhang gets a good staff fight. But it’s not enough to prevent cartoonish surfeit and half-baked drama from dooming the film to mediocrity. *1/2

LEGEND OF THE DRUNKEN TIGER (1990) short review

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Legend of the Drunken Tiger was directed by Robert Tai, who at one point was Chang Cheh’s martial arts choreographer of choice, before going back to his native Taiwan to direct increasingly cheap and demented ninja movies. No ninjas here, but a straightforward kung fu comedy in which Chui Kei Wai plays a lovable drunk who uses his martial arts skills to fight his nemesis, a treacherous lord played by good old Ku Feng, and gets betrothed to a beautiful, equally skilled woman (Kara Hui). It’s entirely forgettable though mostly competent, until the halfway point. Then Robert Tai decides to get ambitious, and the plot switches to a much wider canvas involving the Boxer Rebellion of 1899. But with what seems to be a budget of about a hundred bucks, his reach comically exceeds his grasp. And so we’re treated to a “massive” battle scene involving a few dozen extras, and a string of fights involving evil foreign soldiers who know kung fu, played by glaringly Asian stuntmen wearing curly blonde wigs and decked in hilariously mismatched uniforms. All  this is in the service of a disjointed plot that does no favors to Chui Kei Wai, an evidently gifted performer who never made another film. Along with Kara Hui, who’s a sight for sore eyes, he shines in a serviceable action finale that is the one thing to salvage here. *1/2