Disclaimer: Ip Man does not throw any fireballs in this film
Ip Man - The Final Fight is the latest film focusing on the legend of the man who was Bruce Lee's teacher and mentor. Arriving the same year as Wong Kar Wai's own version, The Grandmaster, director Herman Yau's second Ip Man biopic lifts the focus off Ip Man's early years and places it squarely on the latter part of his life. It succeeds by doing more to show the Grandmaster's character as a person rather than to expand the legend of his martial arts prowess.
Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang face off over tea
By now, the Ip Man films have become a genre unto themselves, and one wonders how many more films this tale can sustain. Fortunately, the story doesn't wear out it's welcome with this film. Things begin in 1949, with Ip Man (Anthony Wong) arriving in Hong Kong ahead of his wife and son, in search of a better life following the Japanese invasion of China. Already preceded by his name as a Wing Chun Grandmaster from the Foshan province, it's not long before he finds himself teaching a new set of pupils. Among them, head of the Restaurant Workers' Union Leung Sheung (Timmy Hung), dim sum girl Chan Sei Mui (Gillian Chung), cop Tang Sing (Jordan Chan), factory girl Lee King (Jiang Luxia), prison warden Wang Dong (Marvel Chow) and tram driver Ng Chan (Donny Ng), each with their own motivation for learning Wing Chun. As Ip Man teaches them his skills and philosophies, he also inevitably becomes involved in their lives.
The film focuses on Ip Man's relationships, not just with his pupils, but also with his wife Cheung Wing Shing (Anita Yuen), his son Ip Chun (Zhang Song Wen), a local singer named Jenny (Zhou ChuChu) and Master Ng Chung of the rival Pak Hok school (Eric Tsang). That's not to say it's all talk and no action. Although he maintains a strong stance against violence for the sake of violence, Ip Man doesn't shy away from confrontation when it's necessary. There are small fight scenes peppered throughout, but there are two standout sequences -- one that has Ip Man and Ng Chung fighting the Master from the rival Chun Wai school, during a lion dance contest gone awry, and another that pits Ip Man and his pupils against a gang boss named Dragon (Xiong Xinxin) and his cronies, inside the disparate Walled City of Kowloon.
Anthony Wong definitely looks the part and plays the role with stoicism, constantly evoking the wisdom of a man governed by age-old philosophies. He brings a level of authenticity to the role, right down to his Foshan accent, which is convincing although not perfect. In a way, that also conveniently sums up the film's visual effects and fight scenes. The VFX admirably convey the image of 1950's era Hong Kong, but they don't do too much to dress up the fact that exterior scenes appear to be filmed on soundstages and studio backlots. Plus, there are always far too few people on the streets for such a bustling city. Similarly, the fight scenes -- while kinetically realistic -- are bothersome, only because none of the protagonists ever seem to get injured, except when the plot calls for it. This would be well and good for any other martial arts film, but not when the plot is semi-biographical. Apart from those niggles, there's not much else to complain about. The cast is made up of many recognizable faces from Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, and they have a nice interplay with each other (whether they're talking or fighting) that's always fun to watch. It's especially fun to see Wong and Tsang sparring again (as they played opposite one another in Infernal Affairs). And despite the fact that some of them don't have a huge amount of screen time, they each bring enough depth to their characters for audiences to care about them.
The Bottom Line
Ip Man - The Final Fight has a somewhat misleading title, as it functions well as a period character drama with bouts of rousing action. Although it premiered earlier this year in select Asian markets (and was the opening night film at the 37th Hong Kong International Film Festival), it won't debut in North American theaters until September 20th, 2013. Despite this being the fifth film about Ip Man, fans of HK cinema will surely want to add this to their list of films to see. [★★★½]