Ip Man: Kung Fu Master – Movie Review
Over the past two decades, the historic figure of Ip Man – a grandmaster of martial arts and former trainer of Bruce Lee – has achieved near-mythical status in Chinese cinema. Thanks to the five movies unrelated to Donnie Yen Ip-Man franchise and Oscar-nominated Wong Kar-wai the grand master, the character of Ip Man seems to live up to any superhero that American studios could produce. And while Yen’s run as a character may be over, Dennis To’s seems to be on the rise, with the actor returning to play Ip Man for the third time (following 2010s The legend is born: Ip Man and 2018 comedy-fantasy Kung Fu League) in Ip Man: Master of Kung Fu.
As a policeman in the politically unstable city of Foshan, Ip Man (To) is a set of principles in search of a cause. Caught between two rival criminal organizations – one Chinese, the other Japanese – Ip Man wants nothing more than to witness the birth of his son and hone his skills in the art of Wing Chun. These dreams are put to rest when the Japanese cartel begins smuggling drugs through the port of Foshan, forcing Ip Man to rally his compatriots in a one-on-one fight with a Japanese karate master.
On time, Kung Fu Master looks like the work of a director caught between his aspirations and his populist appeal. There are moments throughout the film that aspire to the heights of wuxia canon; When we first meet Ip Man, his fight against a hundred infantrymen is intercut with a game of xiangqi (Chinese chess), alluding to visuals of violence as a metaphor that will appear throughout the film. The fight scenes are also infinitely competent, if a little too prone to interspersed close-ups. To is a talented martial artist, and the cast and crew work hard to sell the show.
But for every moment director Liming Li successfully balances stunts and storytelling, there are dozens more where Kung Fu Master succumbs to its larger elements or its appeal to nationalist cinema. Some decisions are downright baffling; what should be the film’s most thrilling fight, a battle between Ip Man’s mentor figure and two sleek assassins, takes place entirely (and frustratingly) off-camera. And when the crowd rallies to Ip Man’s cause in the final scenes, chanting “China!” in unison, he betrays his hidden motives for Ip Man and his legacy.
As a cultural artifact, Kung Fu Master is a doctoral student’s dream. It’s less an adaptation of one man’s life than a redirection of his cinematic mythos, combining the simplest factual examples with a revisionist story that puts the grandmaster at the center of the Sino-Chinese war. Japanese. It’s not just that the filmmakers chose to imprint legend on fact; they also chose to add their nationalistic themes to the evolution of Ip Man’s place in Chinese history.
It makes the fact of the film more interesting than the film itself and wins Kung Fu Master a place in dissertations on the character’s complicated cinematic legacy. For cinephiles with a historiography mind – who enjoy the rewriting of history on screen as much as the content of the films themselves – this can be a surprisingly meaty bite of B-movie martial arts. And for us others ? There are crowds, raindrops, and a climactic showdown with a foreign enemy. It should be close enough to the Ip Man formula to satisfy any martial arts fan.
Ip Man: Master of Kung Fu is now available on VOD.