Over the previous five years, movie audiences have been inundated with the legend of Wing Chun master Ip Man who, before becoming the focus of numerous motion pictures himself, was most known as master to Bruce Lee. This year alone has already seen Wong Kar-wai’s version of Master Ip’s life, The Grandmaster, and with Ip Man: The Final Fight, director Herman Yau delivers his second take on the grandmaster’s story, and ostensibly the third, and final installment in this particular cinematic Ip Man saga.
Hong Kong action legend Anthony Wong (Hard Boiled) steps in to take over the Ip role that belonged to Donnie Yen for the previous two films. Ip Man: Final Fight looks at the later years of the legendary sifu, and Wong’s incarnation of the man is older, wiser, more contemplative. In fact, if you’re looking for an action packed martial arts epic, you’re in for a disappointment. More than anything, this is a portrait of man trying to find peace and a place in post-World War II China. There are some fantastic battles to be sure, including a climactic row that goes down in the middle of a typhoon, but the action is a secondary concern.
Ip Man: Final Fight is a long, slow burn. Upon moving to Hong Kong, Ip reluctantly—is there any other way for a grandmaster—begins teaching Wing Chun on a rooftop. The early portion of the film is primarily about his students, and the tumultuous times in which they live. Labor upheavals, gang fights, schools competing against one another in the streets, Hong Kong was a city immersed in strife. Through his instruction, Ip serves as a moral center for his pupils, who stray and return, and whose outside roles in the world come into conflict with one another—the union agitators and law enforcement officers come into conflict.
Fitting an entire life, or even a significant piece of a life, into a single movie is difficult. When choosing from a lifetime of stories, you won’t be able to include everything. If not reined in, biopics have a tendency to meander, and Ip Man: Final Fight falls victim to this as you stroll through the significant events of his years. Ip’s wife shows up for a time, then leaves just as quickly, and her eventual death is glossed over. Numerous slices from his life are stitched together, and while they’re fine moments on their own—a friendly duel with a rival from a cross-town school is especially fun—there is little overall narrative thrust for most of the film.
By the time the third act rolls around, Ip Man: Final Fight finds a steady pace and smooth ride. A handful of Ip’s core pupils—Tang Sing (Jordan Chan) who drifts farther and farther away from his master’s teachings, and Wang Tung (Marvel Chow), who started his own, failing Wing Chun school—have fallen in with the notorious, scar-faced Triad, Dragon (Xin Xin Xiong), and only their wise mentor can get them out f their respective messes. When the film comes to this point, however, you can’t help but feel that it’s too little, too late.
You’ve already spent so much time wandering around, that by the time the film starts to move in earnest, you find it hard to remain interested and engaged. With each complication, and there are many, you’re ready to pounce, to proclaim that this moment here is where the story finally begins, only to be let down. At times you think the movie is going to be about rival schools, Ip’s relationship with his wife and then son, gangsters, police corruption, labor disputes in post-war China, among others, but none of these pan out.
Wong is great, as always, as the stoic master. He hardly says a word, but he doesn’t have to as he carries the weight of the world in his eyes and on his face. Ip Man: Final Fight is supposed to be the portrait of a life, but it’s so scattered, and contains so much, that it becomes impossible to pinpoint what it’s all about. The political situation at the time in Hong Kong, which was still under colonial control, is touched on, but only in the briefest, most superficial manner, and feels like a missed opportunity to add additional layers.
The film looks fantastic, cinematographer Chan Kwong-hung’s camera work swoops in and around the elaborate sets the film constructed to replicate the still occupied city. Interiors and exteriors are both minutely detailed, lending the film an air of authenticity. The framing and colors pop on this Blu-ray from Well Go USA, but the overall package isn’t terribly impressive. You get ten minutes worth of making of features, and brief interviews with key players on the cast and crew. These are most interesting when they’re talking about how Wong came to the role—he was reportedly drunk when he first agreed to it, and took serious convincing in the end—and how when discussing the elaborate sets pieces that recreated post-World War II Hong Kong.