Ip Man: the Final Fight

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A still from "IP Man: The Final Fight."


Hong Kong, late 1949. Aged 56, Ip Man (Anthony Wong), a grandmaster in Wing Chun-style martial arts, arrives from his hometown of Foshan, Guangdong province, China, and stays with a friend. He starts a small martial-arts school on the roof of the building, thanks to the union connections of one of his pupils, Leung Sheung (Timmy Hung). His other pupils include Chan Sei-mui (Gillian Chung), a dim sum waitress who loves martial arts stories; policeman Tang Sing (Jordan Chan); Lee King (Jiang Luxia), a union activist; Wong Tung (Marvel Chow), a prison officer; and Wong's friend, Ng Chan, a tram driver.

A year later, Ip man has to discipline some of them for getting into fights and showing off. In Nov 1950, Ip Man's wife, Cheung Wing-sing (Anita Yuen), arrives from Foshan by train. When Lee King is arrested during a union demonstration that turns ugly, Tang Sing manages to get her released. Following a farewell dinner for Wing-sing, attended by Ip Man's old friend Lee Yiu-wah (Liu Kai-chi) and his family, Wing-sing leaves for Foshan to visit her son, Ip Chun (Kevin Cheng), who is about to attend college. Soon after she leaves Hong Kong, the border with China is closed in Jan 1951.

By 1953 Ip Man has moved to new premises. Tang Sing has become a police sergeant and is taking bribes from the underworld; though he doesn't attend classes anymore, he still sends Ip Man money. One evening, Ip Man meets struggling entertainer Jenny (Zhou Chuchu), a non-Cantonese singer of Mandarin songs, whom he saves from some ruffians from the rival White Crane School, headed by Ng Chung (Eric Tsang).

Ip Man and Ng Chung settle their differences in a private fight, which ends in a respectful draw. Meanwhile, Tang Sing has become involved with Local Dragon (Xiong Xinxin), boss of the nefarious Walled City, helping him to fix a fight between Local Dragon's fighter, Ngai Pa-tin (Ken Lo), and Ng Chung. Ip Man and his pupils intervene to save Ng Chung, sealing the two masters' friendship.

When news comes in Jul 1960 that Wing-sing has died in Foshan, Ip Man falls ill and Jenny cares for him. Some of his pupils, including Sei-mui and Lee King resent Jenny's close friendship with their master. Meanwhile, after marrying Sei-mui, Wong Tung leaves his low-paid prison job and starts fighting for money in the Walled City. Things come to a head between Ip Man and Local Dragon in summer 1962, when a money fight is organised between Wong Tung and Ngai.


Five years on from the original Ip Man (2008), and hot on the heels of Wong Kar-wai's artier one-off, The Grandmaster, Ip Man-ia continues apace with this second in an "alternative" series (i.e. not starring Donnie Yen and not directed by Wilson Yip). Again directed by Hong Kong's Herman Yau and produced by Wing Chun pupil Checkley Sin's China-based National Arts Films Production, Ip Man: The Final Fight is a much mellower movie than their first one, The Legend is Born: Ip Man (2010), and conspicuously lacks its vervy, action-ful energy.

Part of that is due to the story setting: the film could easily be called Ip Man: The Final Hong Kong Years. But part is also due to the title casting of veteran actor Anthony Wong. Though not an obvious choice for playing the late Wing Chun martial arts grandmaster, Wong acquits himself okay in his relatively few action scenes, thanks to skilful staging and cutting. Most of all, however, he brings a mature feel to the film that makes it more about character than fighting, more about one proud man's journey through the final two decades of his life in the "foreign" territory of Hong Kong than a purely genre movie of rival schools and techniques or a martial artist needing to prove himself on a professional level.

A sense of nostalgia for '50s/'60s Hong Kong is palpable throughout the whole movie, starting with a technically impressive opening as the camera swoops down into the streets of Kowloon, morphing from CGI to real people. In that respect The Final Fight consciously plays into the continuing retro wave in Hong Kong cinema, an elegy for a simpler time when the territory had a unique identity. On a production and costume design level, the film has a similar look to the Yen/Yip Ip Man 2 (2010), not purely natural but without overdoing the retro look. However, where it differs from the Yen/Yip movie is in its lack of nationalism, with no Chinese vs foreigner subplot. The "final fight" of the title is simply between Ip Man and a local Walled City gangster.

Starting in 1949, when Ip Man arrives in Hong Kong from Foshan, China, the film follows him through the '50s as he establishes a Wing Chun school and ends in the early '70s as he re-meets one of his pupils (an unnamed, only vaguely glimpsed "international film star", i.e. Bruce Lee) who has returned to Hong Kong from the US. The final scenes are interesting for (a) showing Ip Man's evident disapproval of the "star's" career and (b) showing a few seconds of the sole surviving footage of an aged Ip Man practising his moves at home. Apart from that, the film vaguely follows the same plot trajectory as Ip Man 2, with the veteran grandmaster setting up a school, disciplining his students, and so on.

Aside from Wong in the title role, Yau has assembled a quirky cast as his pupils. Twins singer Gillian Chung is more convincing as a dim sum waitress who likes martial arts stories than as a student of Wing Chun, while mainland action tomboy Jiang Luxia (Bad Blood, 2010), Vampire Warriors, 2010) is hardly recognisable as a union activist in a severe '50s hairdo and gets almost no chance to show off her genuine skills. As a pupil-turned-corrupt-cop, Jordan Chan is OK but similarly thinly drawn in Erica Li's rather bitty screenplay, which leaps around here and there without really creating an emotional arc for the film. The strongest, most affecting relationship is not between Ip Man and any of his pupils but between him and a non-Hong Kong singer (touchingly played by Mainland actress Zhou Chuchu — who played dual roles in Yau's Nightmare — in heavy '50s/'60s make-up and hair-do). Even that relationship, however, is never fully developed into a strong dramatic line.

The result is a movie that is interesting rather than dramatically involving, and mellow rather than truly elegaic. Though definitely at the quality end of the prolific Yau's broad spectrum, it could have been much more with a screenplay that acknowledged its different focus from The Legend Is Born and stayed on course as a character study. As in the previous movie, Ip Man's real-life son, Ip Chun, makes a cameo appearance, here as a street seller below Ip Man's apartment.

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