Monday, December 07, 2020

Ip Man: Kung Fu Master

His legend continues to grow. Initially, Hong Kong filmmakers started making films about Bruce Lee’s master, as a work-around to appeal to the martial arts super star’s fans, since the Lee family so tightly controlled the rights to his image and name. However, Ip Man films have become an industry unto themselves. This time around, it is Ip’s tenure as a police officer that will get the heroic treatment. However, you are not likely to hear about his membership in the anti-Communist (at that time) KMT. (Why do you think he suddenly had to leave Foshan for Hong Kong?)  Regardless, the Ip legend takes on superhero proportions in Li Liming’s Ip Man: Kung Fu Master, which releases on VOD this Friday.

Ip believes in the law and in China, so he has no patience for the Foshan gang that has aligned itself with the local Imperial-supported, opium-importing Japanese business council. As the film opens, Ip single-handedly faces the entire gang, while San Ye, the leader of the patriotic (but still criminal) Ax Gang settles business with the opposing gang’s leader. Rules are still rules, so Ip still must take the Ax leader into custody. Unfortunately, that leaves him vulnerable to the corrupt cops on the force.

Naturally, his daughter blames Ip for her father’s death, even though the honest cop is secretly protecting her, under the guise of the masked vigilante, “The Black Knight.” To humiliate the local population, the Japanese syndicate sponsors a martial arts competition, with the Imperial Army’s karate champion taking on all comers (flagrantly copying a page from Wilson Ip’s original
Ip Man, but whatever). Of course, he only gets one challenger, Ip Man, who will be more than enough.

Kung Fu Master does not connect on an emotional level the way Donnie Yen’s first three Ip Man films did and it lacks the stylish grandeur of Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster. It is definitely less ambitious in nearly every respect, but what it sets out to do, it does really well. Action director Sun Fei’s fight scenes start of big and over-the-top—and only get more so as the film continues. Dennis To’s Ip is typically outnumbered something like 70 or 80 to 1, but it is never enough. Eventually, you’d think the hapless gang-members would look around and realize: “we’re going to need a couple hundred more guys.”

Dennis To previously played Ip twice (including Wilson Ip’s prequel). He looks a bit like Yen, but he doesn’t have the same on-screen charm. However, the accomplished martial artist definitely has the moves. The only things that matter in this film are the fights, which he handles quit handily. Yuan Li Ruoxin’s dance training also serves her well during the action scenes as the Axes’ daughter. Michael Wong plays it weirdly straight as the Axes’ boss, but Yue Dongfeng hams it up (in the right way) as “Uncle Leng,” the brother of Ip’s master, who practices a decidedly drunken (but effective) style of Kung Fu.

Kung Fu Master is a lesser film than most of its Ip Man predecessors, but it is undeniably entertaining, in an unfussy, give-the-people-what-they-want kind of way. It is all about the Wing Chun scenes—and they deliver everything fans could want. Recommended for martial arts fans in the mood for some red meat, Li’s Ip Man: Kung Fu Master releases this Friday (12/11) on digital VOD platforms.