Watch out kung fu fans, a brand new Ip Man is here. Well Go USA is set to release the Hong Kong film “葉問：終極一戰 / Ip Man: The Final Fight” (2013) to DVD and Blu-Ray on November 12th, featuring the sort of authentic kung fu sifu rarely seen onscreen.
This latest Ip Man story from producer Checkly Sin and director Herman Yau avoids the usual one dimensional heroes and testosterone-fueled excuses for bone snapping, one-on-twenty, slow motion fight scenes. Instead it focuses on the man himself in a mainly biographical drama that is much more sensitive and introspective than previous Ip stories. This film is less interested in asking how a hero fights evil than how a real man faces life’s setbacks and can still remain true to his art. Despite its unavoidable fictional drama and fun fictional fights, “Ip Man: The Final Fight” is primarily a thoughtful elegy; a graceful attempt to paint a portrait of the soul of Wing Chun Grandmaster Ip Man.
Master actor Anthony Wong Sau Chang is luminous and riveting as an elderly Ip Man who comes to live in modest poverty in Hong Kong after WWII*. Ip’s story has no grand enemies or evil plots, and no dramatic conflict other than perhaps his stubborn desire to preserve his old world morality of right conduct in his new modern lifestyle. His simple daily life is woven into a lukewarm secondary plot that features one of Ip’s students (Jordan Chan Siu Chun) as police sergeant Tang Sing who falls prey to the corruption that overruns the city. As pressure from Walled City villains (Xiong Xin Xin; Ken Lo Wai Kwong) mount Tang must find, and fight for, his own moral integrity.
The true heart of the film however is Ip’s role as Wing Chun teacher and his relationship with others: his close-knit students, his family (Anita Yuen Wing Ji; Zhang Song Wen ), mistress (Zhou Chu Chu) and friends (Eric Tsang Chi Wai; Liu Kai Chi). As they face the difficulties of life in post-war Hong Kong, with its poverty, graft and workers riots, Ip acts as a mentor and role model to those around him.
The historical Ip Man is now a legacy and has hitherto been mostly portrayed onscreen without personality. In “Ip Man: The Final Fight” screenwriters Checkly Sin and Erica Lee’s portrait of a complex personality is a fresh, brave attempt to present the legacy as a real human being. While he is of course still fictionalized, this Ip is a flawed man that audiences can begin to understand. What is central, and also highly memorable, is the kung fu master’s quiet influence on other people, how he goes about living, and his dedication to Wing Chun that enables it to be preserved for posterity. Above all is Wing Chun.
Producer, action director and screenwriter Checkly Sin is a Wing Chun practitioner who entered the film industry primarily to promote the art. Anthony Wong has never been a heavy martial actor but his pre-production training with Sin was intense and he is quite convincing as the calm, gifted kung fu master. The film is of course a Wing Chun showcase with some very entertaining, fast paced fights that evoke the older Hong Kong action style and photography. Wirework is kept safely within the “reality” zone and there is no intrusive CGI, so the fights are grounded and appropriate. All of the martial actors (veterans Xiong Xin Xin, Ken Lo Wai Kwong, Jiang Lu Xia, Marvel Chow) are professional ass kickers who bring energetic, high quality action to the screen.
As entertaining and kick ass as the fights are (especially Ip’s final showdown), they do seem to be included in this quiet biopic mainly to draw an audience. Because nobody can sit through 100 minutes of a simple, uneventful sifu.
Fictional fights and drama are an unfortunate necessity but that fictional burden is mostly taken off Ip Man and put onto other characters. While this is commendable since it removes Ip from too many superhero antics, it also makes him a main character with nothing to do. The hero journey that could or should belong to him is instead assigned to Tang Sing, a secondary character who vaguely wanders in and out of the film. This precludes a tight, excellent plot but strangely, the film still entertains right up to the moment of its expertly crafted conclusion. In part this is because it has a very strong, charismatic cast and extremely pleasing production values.
The photography and lighting is outstanding and while there are some inappropriate music moments, the score is quite good. The sets are outstanding. Although the exterior sets feel artificial (pro tip: pour some oil and dirt on those squeaky clean streets), the interior sets are absolutely remarkable recreations of post-war Hong Kong living. Exacting detail and authentic props lift this film into a higher realm of visual extravagance. If the set decoration doesn’t win a HK Film Award then there really is no justice in this world.
And finally there is Anthony Wong. His performance as an aging old world teacher is nuanced and sophisticated. Without his remarkable presence the film may very well have sunk. The anecdote that he was drunk and jokingly accepted his old friend Herman Yau’s crazy request that he play Ip Man may become legendary because this may be the role for which he will be remembered. In the end, “Ip Man: The Final Fight” is a charismatic, sensitive piece of entertainment, a nice elegy for the man who was a teacher, mentor, colleague, lover, friend and Wing Chun grandmaster.
THE DVD: The Well Go USA DVD is a NTSC 16:9 Widescreen release with Stereo/5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Digital. It has not been edited for American release and runs 101 minutes. The film is in Cantonese with an option for good English subtitles. There is a handful of really fun Bonus Features: interviews and “making of” featurettes with the actors and producer Checkly Sin which are well made, insightful and very entertaining.