Folk Heroes are such huge figures of Chinese culture that to western eyes it may look like the milking of a particularly bounteous cash cow, look at Wong Fei Hung & Fong Sai-Yuk – between them we are looking at hundreds of titles. Both of those figures date back hundreds upon hundreds of years, with the two of them forming a significant backbone to the historical martial arts film. In recent years there has been a new entrant into this Chinese cultural hall of fame in Ip Man, a Wing Chun master who is known to many as the teacher of Bruce Lee. Ip (or Yip) Man has never been far away from cinema with Wong Kar Wai in the Grandmaster, Donnie Yen’s star ascended to superstardom with his trilogy of films and finally there’s the topic of this very review, Herman Yau, with his two films the legend is born and the final fight – the latter of which is out now on the resurgent CineAsia.
Ip Man was active during the second Sino-Japanese war and that era has been the focus of many a filmmaker, Yau, in his second film, has cast Chinese acting legend Anthony Wong in the titular role and set it during the latter days of his life as he taught in Hong Kong. The Final Fight is more of a drama biopic, hence the heavyweight casting, depicting the events of the time and the role his many students played. Simultaneously, the film also builds up to the same peaks as a more traditional martial arts film with numerous mob scenes, a master challenge with Eric Tsang and the final fight referenced by the title.
While both Tsang and Wong featured in 1980s action comedies like the Lucky Stars films, they are no martial artists, no more than Matt Damon in the Bourne films, at least. Each scene in question is choreographed with little regard to its stars lacking action pedigree, a choice decision as toning down any aspect of the film would belittle the legend the film is attempting to bring to life. Lucky it is then that the martial art in question is Wing Chun, a far less bombastic style that is more reliant on reaction over action thereby effectively allowing Anthony Wong to be authentic and believable. That’s the theory on paper anyway, with the final fight being on a label with such a strong action pedigree and the implications of those two titular words, it is disappointing that this is a dramatic film first and foremost.
Labels of such marginal film genres paint certain expectations and with so few distributors bothering with the ‘kung fu’ film, it’s well within reason to feel a little defeated. This is to clarify that comment, there is nothing inherently wrong with any genre film having dramatic aspirations, on the contrary, more need to engage in more rounded and wholesome narratives. The reason why I am using the same word over and over is that of one key similarity Yau’s film has with many other current biopics. And that is an issue of mass, many other depictions of historical figures attempt to tell too many stories at once and in that a basic level of focus is lost. What is the story that is being told? A pertinent question as the final fight opts to characterise Ip Man’s original core of students.
With Erica Lee’s screenplay spreading itself thin like this, we see threads that cover the crime syndicate in the nearby Kowloon Walled City, police corruption, growing relationships with the community that surrounds the titular man and his school as well as his own family and connections, away from martial arts. The reason why such storytelling is described as episodic is fairly self-explanatory, moving from one set of characters to another is a form of storytelling that is better suited to either a portmanteau narrative or expanded into a long-form series. The episodic narrative can be a success in film as evidenced by Chen Kaige’s Farewell my Concubine – to keep it within the framing device of Chinese cinema. The narrative setup is by no means one of the worse examples, but the same is true here as has been the case in many films before it – the story never sits still, therefore, engaging with any of the stories being told becomes difficult.
Despite these reservations, Herman Yau’s Ip Man: Final Fight is worth catching for all the Hong Kong action and martial arts cinema fans reading this. Even if the pacing feels odd, all of the action is riveting stuff both in its performance and choreography. Plaudits especially need to be offered to the final fight between Ip Man and a choice few of his students and the local gang lord, Dragon (Hung Yan-yan, Jet Li’s former stunt double) and his men. Similarly, while pulling in too many directions, the storytelling is given a class rarely afforded in the martial arts film by the towering acting presences of Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang. There’s also a few nice scenes for fans of Ip Man’s most famous student.