By: Anthony Francis
I dislike catch phrases and silly terms but I am sad to report that the phrase “Cash Grab” is apropos when speaking of the latest (and hopefully final) Ip Man film, Ip Man: Kung Fu Master”.
Ip Man 1, 2, 3, and 4 are all fantastic films full of great acting and the masterful fight choreography one expects from Chinese Martial Arts films. Donny Yen portrayed Wing Chun master Ip Man as a wise soul and used mellow tonal shifts to express emotion. Yen’s four films as the Master who taught Bruce Lee form a modern classic of a Kung Fu quadrilogy.
Kar-Wai Wong’s 2013 film, The Grandmaster was a classic and turned Ip Man’s life story into a moody and artful ballet of shadows, lighting, emotions, and outstanding Martial Arts.
These four films stand as the finest cinematic interpretations of the life of the legendary teacher. There were definitely a couple of lesser wannabes that attached the Ip Man name to their titles, hoping to be thought of as part of Yen and Wong’s cinematic universe but each imitator failed to catch fire, as they just weren’t good enough to stand beside the mastery of The Grandmaster and the Ip Man trilogy.
Along comes Ip Man: Kung Fu Master, the very definition of a cash grab and a film that is completely drained of emotion, it is almost offensive that the film bears the Ip Man moniker.
Set during the time of the Japanese invasion of China, this entry follows Ip Man during his time a stern and by the book police captain who runs afoul of a local mobster and becomes framed for the murder of another. He quits the police force in semi-disgrace (although his soul is intact) and sets out to clear his name and protect himself from the murdered mobster’s heir.
Yu-Hang To stars as Ip Man and while he is an accomplished Martial Artist in his personal life, he proves here that he is no actor. His face is deadpan with nothing to show behind the eyes. When the actor does get a small chance to emote, To just doesn’t have the chops to do it. While he does have a passing resemblance to Donnie Yen, this does not make the actor a proper Ip Man.
Other characterizations fare no better as every role is written as cliché and every performance follows suit.
This film becomes a quite shallow interpretation of Ip Man’s life. It is more concerned with getting to the fights rather than developing interesting characters and situations.
The fights are done pretty well and there is some amazing skills to be witnessed, especially in the opening fight where Ip Man faces one hundred hatched-wielding bad guys and gals who try to stop him from reaching their boss, who sits waiting at the top of his three story fortress.
The scene is exciting and well-choreographed, as are all the fight sequences. The big problem, and the source of many of the film’s shortcomings, lies in Liming Li’s direction.
Li (who is currently preparing the unneeded Young Ip Man: Crisis Time for international release) loses much of the “Wow” factor from his fight scenes, as the filmmaker seems to have a penchant for slowing things down. Slow Motion photography can be used artfully (Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill) or the effect can be overused to the point of making action scenes look silly (Michael Bay). In this film, Li wants us to see every kick and punch and desires for his audience to marvel at the Martial Arts skill as they explode across the screen.
It is in Li’s overuse of the technique where he renders many great fight moments dull, as they begin to resemble the overblown Hollywood action sequences where filmmakers mistake slo-mo for being cool. What it does there and in Li’s film is to take its audience out of many exciting moments. While the fights are choregraphed well, it is the filmmaking causes them to lose their flair.
Sadly, for fans of the superior Ip Man films, Ip Man: Kung Fu Master is a waste of time. Dull lighting techniques and absolutely no noticeable style to speak of Li’s film exists as a mere pastiche of moments from the other films.