‘Ip Man 4: The Finale’ Review: Series-Capper Heads to America
Flat-footed storytelling meets light-footed choreography and lavish production values in “Ip Man 4: The Finale,” the latest installment from director Wilson Yip and star producer Donnie Yen’s brilliant mythic tetralogy on the famed master. Wing Chun.
The insistent subtitle is there for a reason: everyone, including Yen, thought “Ip Man 3” would be the last time he would don Ip Man’s priestly tunic. Then again, after “Ip Man 2”, still the best of the franchise, Yen would also have been hesitant to return. A bit like the great, wise, noble sifu (“master-father”) that he embodies so convincingly, Yen apparently only enters the fray when circumstances (read: box office) leave him no other choice.
The problem, then, is how to maintain a story that was largely exhausted by the murderous climax of the last film? The solution that the regular team of writers – Edmond Wong, Chan Tai-lee, Jil Leung, plus, this time, Dana Fukazawa – finds is to transpose the action into a new setting. If the last time the American mountain came to Hong Kong from Ip Man in the form of successful stuntman Mike Tyson, maybe this time Ip Man could go to the mountain?
We are first told of Ip Man’s diagnosis of terminal throat cancer – a weighty secret that gives Yen’s gravity a center of gravity, whereas, in previous films, his stoic presence when he’s not landing a flurry of endearing blows to an unlucky underbelly, might look a bit like an extinct robot. Then Ip accepts an invitation from his protege Bruce Lee (Lee-alike Danny Kwok Kwan Chan) who now runs his own studio in San Francisco, to come to an exhibition match.
Ip’s main motivation for going there is actually to find a suitable school for his surly son Jin – not, perhaps the highest stakes ever introduced in a martial arts movie. Hence a plethora of subplots: Lee’s decision to teach Chinese Kung Fu to non-Chinese people angered the leaders of the local China Benevolent Association (CBA) so that they, directed by the freezing Master Wan (Wu Yue), hesitate to write his sifu the school recommendation that Ip needs. But Wan’s cheerleader daughter, Yonah (Vanda Margraf), is bullied by a blonde, all-American, Becky, literally called Becky (Grace Englert); Becky’s bigoted father is with the immigration authority and has little interest in the ABC; and a Marine follower of Lee’s called Hartman (Vanness Wu) hopes to introduce elements of Chinese kung fu into Marine Corps training, but must overcome harsh racism from his Gunnery Sergeant Geddes (a suitably repulsive Scott Adkins) with grunting karate master/sidekick Colin (Chris Collins).
All of this creates a slew of side quests and combat demo matches that nicely cover 56-year-old Yen’s fewer and slightly less nimble fight scenes. And with superstar fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping in top form, and so many different opponents to combine like in a supercharged game of Tekken, you don’t miss him too much, even if the most spectacular face-off of the film is not the last, but that between Adkins (“Chinese Kung fu?”, he sneers, as if he spat out a fishbone) and the elegant master Wan of Wu Yue.
Throughout, “Ip Man 4” is a treat to watch, decked out in vintage duds, with plush interiors and gleaming vintage cars so immaculate they could have fallen straight off the pedestal of the motor museum. Johnnie To’s regular cinematographer Cheng Siu-keung also brings real elegance to the fight scenes. And in a winking homage to former Hong Kong actors, the filmmakers even reimagine some of their most garish excesses: Shonky crash zooms in on quivering eyes become graceful leads for pensive close-ups; thread work is present, but minimal – most of the time the physics feel pretty much real.
On the ideological level, the film is not so skilful. Seeking to portray the historically true prejudices faced by Chinese immigrants in 1960s America, the screenplay paints white America with a very broad and unrepentant racist brush. Virtually the only sympathetic American is a black Lee student – but the undercurrent of solidarity among oppressed minorities when Hartman announces “We are culture! in front of a marine corps dotted with black and brown faces, is barely developed. Another potentially interesting lead that hasn’t been explored: the ugly gunnery sergeant spouting nonsense about America being the “land of supremacy” (it’s like, we get it man , you’re a racist) and the cautious Chinese master of Tai Chi Wan have, on the one hand, similar ideas on the separation of races.
But political nuance isn’t on the menu here, as Ip and company’s final test is essentially convincing a group of burly fanatics that Chinese kung fu is at least the equal of karate – a discipline here curiously scrubbed from its own Asian origin to become something of a true American martial art. This fusion of Japanese and American cultures could only have come from a Chinese perspective, and is an unintentionally fascinating inverse example of the flattening and stereotyping of Asian cultures that American films have often dealt with. If this practice is known as Orientalism, is “Ip Man 4” an example of Westernism? If so, assuming you’re ok with that, well done and enjoyable, and a good farewell – this time, they mean it – to serenely super-skilled Yen sifu.