Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ip Man—the Final Fight: the Grandmaster’s Golden Years

Ip Man was such a powerful kung fu master, he could actually warp time.  Fans can only assume as much if they wish to rationalize the conflicting timelines of the various Ip Man films released in recent years.  The dates and places might change, but Ip Man remains the grandmaster of grandmasters.  Herman Yau dramatizes his twilight years in Ip Man—the Final Flight, featuring a different Ip, yet one still more or less compatible Wong Kar-wai’s Grandmaster (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Hong Kong’s go-go economy had yet to blast off.  Master Ip earns little more than a subsistence living teaching his Wing Chun style of kung fu to students.  Well known throughout the city, Master Ip could probably do a brisker business were it not for his own self-imposed restrictions.  Kung fu is a way of life for him—not a commodity to be commercialized.

In a way, The Final Flight is a bit Gumpish, casting Master Ip as an observer of two decades of Hong Kong’s growing pains, including the rise of trade unionism and the rampant gangsterism within the Walled City.  However, when it finally gets down to fighting, Final delivers some spectacular street melees.

While produced independently of Wong Kar Wai’s long awaited martial arts spectacle and Wilson Yip’s Ip Man franchise, Anthony Wong is not a bad likeness for both Donnie Yen and “Little” Tony Leung Chiu Wai in their AARP years.  Wong might not look particularly spry, but he is a steely old cat, so it is easy to buy into him as the veteran martial artist.  After all, the genre has a long history of butt-kicking graybeards.

Indeed, Wong’s Zen-like gravitas is perfect for the venerable Ip.  He also develops some appealingly ambiguous chemistry with Zhou Chu Chu, playing a scandalous nightclub singer attracted to his old bad self.  However, the film is overstuffed with Ip’s disciples.  You would think half the city was studying under him. Regardless, Jordan Chan adds real hardboiled heft to the film as Tang Shing, a not completely corrupt copper and former student of Ip’s.  He creates a spinoff-worthy character should the filmmakers wish to further complicate the Ip Man universe.

Yau should satisfy fans with his gritty street action and humanistic portrayal of the Ip family.  In fact, Ip’s son, Ip Chun served as a technical advisor and appears in a small supporting role.  Final Fight is also bolder than its predecessor films depicting Ip’s most famous student, Bruce Lee.  Although never named as such, it is hard to miss the implication when Master Ip meets with a former student turned famous actor, whom the audience only sees from behind, sporting conspicuous sunglasses.

It was the apostolic connection to Bruce Lee that launched the Ip Man filmmaking craze to begin with, but the Master has since taken on a media life of his own. Nicely choreographed with a wistful vibe that sets it apart from the pack, Yau’s latest Ip Man is a worthy addition to the Ip canon.  Recommended for martial arts fans with a strong appreciation of tradition, Ip Man—the Final Fight opens this Friday (9/20) in New York at the Cinema Village.