When a popular film gets multiple sequels and becomes a series franchise, it runs the risk of losing what made the source initial movie stand out. An example in Chinese-Hong Kong cinema would be Tsui Hark’s “Wong Fei-Hung” 1990s films, known internationally as “Once Upon a Time in China,” which was the star-making vehicle of Jet Li. The more films came out, the lesser in quality they seemed, such that Li was actually replaced by Vincent Zhao in the fourth and fifth. But Lee returned in the sixth and last installment, which was good, in similar circumstances to “Ip Man.”
This martial arts film series from director Wilson Yip which started in 2008 became a vehicle towards global recognition for Donnie Yen, who plays the incredibly cool master of Wing Chun Kung Fu who became one of the first martial arts instructors of legendary Kung Fu film star Bruce Lee. The first three films charted a dramatic biographical course of Master Ip’s life from 1930s Foshan, China leading to World War II, to his settling down in Hong Kong and eventually meeting Lee Jun-Fan, the future Bruce. It was believed that the third film (2015) would end his story (excepting a 2018 spinoff), but a fourth one premiered this month.
From its title alone, “Ip Man 4: The Finale” sells itself as the definitive conclusion of the movie franchise, particularly with Donnie Yen in the title role. The plot circumstances also enforce this, being set in 1964 (“Ip Man 3” being set in 1959), with Master Ip learning that he has cancer, similar to his now-late wife (cameo by Lynn Hung). After his eldest son Ip Ching (Jim Liu) gets expelled from his school in China, the elder Ip decides to find a new school for him in San Francisco.
There, Ip gets a quick exposition experience on Chinese-American life. Chinese associations work to maintain their cultural identity and societal cohesion among the residents, with one of their restrictions being the prevention of Kung Fu schools from teaching non-Chinese students. This is problematic because Bruce Lee, Ip’s one-time student and now actor and martial arts teacher, is upsetting the order by defying the Chinese-only teaching restrictions. Ip finds himself having to choose between supporting Lee and acquiescing to the Chinese associations’ ruling (to acquire a letter of recommendation for his son to enroll stateside). But there are other plots afoot.
A secondary storyline has the efforts of a Chinese-American pupil of Lee’s and Marine Sergeant (Vanness Wu), to introduce Chinese Kung Fu disciplines to the development of the US Marine Corps’ martial arts program. This however is being opposed by his superior, Gunnery Sgt. Geddes (Scott Adkins), who is hostile to Chinese immigrants and culture, and is preserving the Marines’ Karate-based teaching. When the Corps gets caught up with an immigration controversy involving San Francisco’s Chinese association, the stage is set for Ip and Geddes to clash over the future of Kung Fu in America.
Now that this film is being treated as a swan song, Donnie Yen is free to give his best portrayal of Ip Man yet, as a peaceful but formidable Wing Chun Kung Fu master, but now with the added caveat of being confronted with his mortality and ensuring a good future for his son. Shades of diplomatic acumen are also shown in his interactions with the Chinese association leader Wan (Wu Yue) and his daughter Yonah (Vanda Margraf), whom Ip rescues from bullying schoolmates that then set up US immigration services to crack down on the Chinese-American community, in some uncomfortable parallels to current events.
Some call-backs from previous films are also prominent in “Ip Man 4: The Finale,” such as Ip fighting a main opponent using karate, who is also harping some toxic patriotism for his home country (the US this time instead of Imperial Japan) over China, its people and culture. That is sold well enough thanks to hammy acting from Scott Adkins. Taiwanese actor Vanness Wu certainly has come a long way from his “Meteor Garden” F4 days, capitalizing on his fluent English to play an American Marine with Chinese roots. Lastly, Danny Chan takes his comparably limited screen-time to memorably portray a Bruce Lee that comes across much better than the “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” version from Quentin Tarantino.
Viewers who get to see this movie will understand why it is certainly the closing of a martial arts franchise from its denouement. But they would also agree that it is a splendid conclusion to the multi-part life story of a master of Kung Fu who was initially famous only for teaching Bruce Lee, but has now been elevated into a standalone Chinese martial arts legend in his own right. While spinoffs may carry on the IP in future, this is a great exit for Donnie Yen and “Ip Man.”
Image courtesy of Variety