Seeing Ip Man 3 in light of Wong Kar-Wai’s 2013 Ip Man biopic The Grandmaster is the equivalent of seeing an impetuous young firebrand overshadowed by a mature, world-wearier truth-teller. For Wong, the story of Ip Man—the Wing Chun martia arts legend who, among his many accomplishments, is known for being Bruce Lee’s instructor—is, if anything, more about his pragmatic, forward-moving philosophy of life than about his awesome physical prowess, going so far as to elide the Bruce Lee connection in his original 130-minute cut. Wilson Yip, by contrast, uses Ip Man’s biography as grist for whatever insane action scenarios and inventive fight choreography he and his collaborators can muster.
That’s not to say one approach is inherently inferior to the other, especially since, over the span of three movies, Yip has certainly delivered the goods in the spectacle department. Ip Man 2, for instance, offered the delirious main event of Chinese martial artists facing off against a British boxer in a boxing match, one fighting style vying for supremacy over the other. Ip Man 3 goes even further with that, hauling in none other than Mike Tyson (spouting occasional words of Cantonese, no less) to eventually match up with Ip Man (Donnie Yen) in a sequence as ridiculous as it is exhilarating.
Tyson plays a Western property developer who wants to tear down a particular school in order to make way for a fancy new apartment building. He’s only the latest of the series’ string of “foreign devils” that have been Ip Man’s main nemeses: It was occupying Japanese during World War II in the first, China-set Ip Man, and colonial British in the Hong Kong-set second film—if nothing else, Yip’s series has been remarkably consistent in its anti-colonialist attitudes. In Ip Man 2, a shared hatred toward the British—generally presented as mustache-twirling villain caricatures—was enough to unite Ip Man and rival grandmaster Hung Chun-Nam (Sammo Hung). What, if anything, this has to do with either the physical or philosophical characteristics of Wing Chun is something that Yip never really bothers to explain over the course of three films.
Somewhat more pertinently, battles between various grandmasters to assert the dominance of different forms of martial arts have also been a common feature of this series, essentially reducing martial arts to one big dick-measuring contest. So it goes with Ip Man 3, which, despite focusing much of its attention on the evils of gentrification, ultimately builds up to a battle between Ip Man and an ambitious youth, Cheung Tin-chi (Jin Zhang), who accuses his elder of practicing a dishonorable form of Wing Chun. Yip’s Ip Man movies are so rooted in a conventional macho action genre ideology that Ip Man’s calls for cultural inclusiveness at the end of Ip Man 2 and his valorization of the transcendent power of love at the end of Ip Man 3 can’t help but seem just a tad hypocritical.
At least there are the action sequences, the principal glory of this series. For Ip Man 3, legendary Hong Kong director/action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping takes over from Sammo Hung, who did the honors in the first two Ip Man films, and Yuen’s presence can immediately be felt in the film’s first set piece, in which a prospective student tries to use matches and cigarettes as targets for a demonstration of his strength. Here’s a glimpse of the ceaselessly inventive genre artist who, in films like his 1981 directorial effort Dreadnaught, dared to turn even a routine haircut into a thrilling balletic display.
Thankfully, as an action director, Yip resists the urge to cave into the incoherent handheld, quick-cut style preferred by Western practitioners like Michael Bay and Paul Greengrass: His patience and attention to spatial coherence enhances our enjoyment of Donnie Yen’s frequent rapid-fire pummeling fits. As for Donnie Yen: Never the strongest thespian when it comes to suggesting a rich inner life to his characters, in the Ip Man movies he’s merely required to convey a sense of Zen calm even as he brings the pain, gracefully, to his opponents. He does so sufficiently and at times dazzlingly. It is for that kind of surface appeal that one can safely turn to these Ip Man movies—and to The Grandmaster for the deeper story of the martial arts legend.
Director: Wilson Yip
Starring: Donnie Yen, Lynn Hung, Jin Zhang, Mike Tyson, Patrick Tam
Release Date: January 22, 2015
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.