Ip Man: The Final Fight

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/02/13 05:39:29

"Quite nice, but let's hope it is the final fight for now."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: If it seems as if there's been a new movie about Bruce Lee's teacher Ip Man coming out every year since Donnie Yen first played the role for Wilson Yip in 2008, it means you've been paying attention; they have been coming out at roughly that rate. And while they've been a varied lot both in tone and quality, this one's a bit of a surprise, given that it comes from the team that did the rather different "The Legend is Born".

Wing Chun master Ip Man (Anthony Wong Chau-sang) arrived in Hong Kong in 1949, having been well-off before the war but now with as little as anyone. A friend gives him a place to stay above his restaurant, and he is soon giving lessons on the rooftop. His students include restaurant union leader Leung Sheung (Timmy Hung Tin-ming), waitress Chan Sei-mui (Gillian Chung Yan-tung), policeman Tang Sing (Jordan Chan Siu-chun), factory worker Lee king (Jiang Lu-xia), and prison guard Wong Tung (Chow Ting-yu); his most famous pupil would arrive later. While Ip Man and wife Wing-sing (Anita Yuen Wing-yee) live a modest life, Tang Sing finds himself tempted by what a cop willing to look the other way can attain from the hands of crime boss Dragon (Xiong Xin Xin).

While I cannot yet speak for Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmasters, one of the things that is surprising from the start of The Final Fight is how thoroughly grounded it is after a number of movies focused on legend-building, a fair amount of which was outright fabrication. I don't recall any of the previous movies mentioning that Ip Man's daughters starved to death during the war as this one does, something that immediately establishes a more somber tone than, say, Ip Man 2, which also starts from the title character arriving in Hong Kong. It seems quite likely that the events that provide a climax are well-embellished, but much of the rest - described in the credits as coming from son Ip Chun's recollections, has the ring of truth.

That an make for a fairly mild-mannered movie, and there is sometimes the sense that director Herman Yau (best known for horror and exploitation movies) wanted to make another Ip man movie but he and writer Erica Li found themselves with a man who spent his later years living a quiet but principled life, which is admirable if not necessarily dramatic. Things pop up that seem like they could lead to larger stories - several students are involved in labor strikes, putting them at odds with Tang Sing; a pretty nightclub singer (Zhou Chu-chu) nurses a crush on Ip and looks after the aging widower - but they don't erupt. More than anything, it seems to be a story about how righteous discipline may not be materially rewarded, but Ip Man retains loyal followers and friends through the rest of his life, whereas Tang Sing grows increasingly isolated and ultimately helpless when he does try to do good, although that narrative is not a perfect fit either.

Still, it's got Anthony Wong. A ubiquitous supporting actor who has made scenes in a great many Hong Kong movies better than they could have been, he plays Ip Man roughly the same way: Reserved but fully-formed, never looking to hog the spotlight. He's called upon to play Ip as perhaps a bit too rigid, but there's kindness underneath that bubbles up in the scenes with Anita Yuen as his wife. Yuen is fine, as is Zhou Chu-chu, although Jordan Chan isn't quite up to serving as his reflection.

Of course, a lot of the cast is brought in for their skill as screen fighters, and there's actually some nifty names in there: Timmy Hung is Sammo's eldest son, for instance, while Jiang Lu-xia had a memorable debut in Coweb a few years back and Xiong Xin Xin co-starred in the later Once Upon a Time in China movies. And for as much as this is a quiet movie in spirit, there's no shortage of times when punches will be thrown, either in practice or street fighting or something else. Action directors Nicky Li & Checkley Sin use their group of quality fighters well, and the action serves as a nice change of pace and punctuation to what can be a rather quiet story.

As good as the component pieces are, they do sort of demonstrate that Ip Man seems to be fairly well tapped out as a source of martial-arts movie stories. "The Final Fight" is enjoyable to watch, but if there was much more to tell, it seems likely such stories would have made its way into the script.

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