It’s weird to think that the first Ip Man came out in 2008. It seems so much longer than that. Since then, the series has spawned two sequels as well as plenty of other media about the eponymous real-life practitioner of Wing Chun. There’s The Legend Is Born: Ip Man with Dennis To (a young-man Ip Man movie), Ip Man: The Final Fight with Anthony Wong (an old-man Ip Man movie), Wong Kar-Wai’s sumptuous The Grandmaster starring Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi, and even an Ip Man TV series.
In just eight years, Ip Man has gone from real-life historical figure to full-blown action movie folk hero. He’s become the new Wong Fei-Hung, the legendary martial artist who’d later be portrayed by the likes of Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Gordon Liu, and Sammo Hung. This all paves the way for Bruce Lee’s inevitable transformation from on-screen icon to cinematic folk hero. (Lee was a real-life student of Ip Man’s; Birth of the Dragon, a new American Bruce Lee biopic starring Philip Ng, is currently in the works. It’s only a matter of time.)
Ip Man 3 is presumably the final movie of the Donnie Yen/Wilson Yip series, and it may even be Yen’s last kung fu movie since the actor is now 51 years old. It’s a fitting send off in a lot of ways, because Ip Man 3 seems to be an Ip Man movie about Ip Man movies.
Ip Man 3 (葉問3)
Director: Wilson Yip
Release Date: January 22, 2016
In the three Donnie Yen Ip Man films, the constant concern has been how a person can remain righteous while dividing energies between country, family, and the martial arts. This boils down to the obligations a person has to the future of a culture, to immediate loved ones, and to the self. It’s also about punching people in the face repeatedly very fast, sure, but if we’re looking at the martial arts as a way of being (i.e., a way), Ip Man‘s always been about how a person takes a core belief, universalizes these dictums, and then puts this into action. It’s explored visually in The Grandmaster with the way every strike disturbs the environment, but watching so many kung-fu movies over the years has made this whole notion of the extension of thought into action into the world more apparent.
Maybe what makes Ip Man such a compelling hero is that taking thought into action into the world is what makes all sorts of heroes memorable. There’s philosophy behind every punch.
Ip Man 3 continues this tradition of duties to country/family/self, and the plot is mostly hinged to all three. The film opens irreverently with Ip Man meeting a young Bruce Lee, who proceeds to demonstrate his fighting prowess in what can only be described as a martial arts anti-smoking ad. The rest of the plot involves a foreign crime boss trying to shut down a school to claim the land for his own (Mike Tyson), a would-be Wing Chun master in search of fame (Max Zhang aka Jin Zhang), and the health of Ip Man’s wife (Lynn Hung). Ip Man, a righteous dude, volunteers to defend the school–Ip Man tropes ensue.
The fights in Ip Man 3 may some of the finest in the series in terms of variety and staging. Sammo Hung handled the choreography in the previous two films, but Ip Man 3 instead turns to Yuen Woo-Ping. The fights seem more grounded though just as brutal, and generally a little more old school than bombastic. Yen’s talked about how his diet and training changes with each role to better embody the character. Playing Ip Man means cutting carbs and staying as slim as possible, and Yen looks especially thin here.
As much as I love Ip Man and kind of liked Ip Man 2, the biggest hurdle to each fight was Ip Man’s sense of invincibility. He spends all of the first movie in God Mode, dominating almost every fight he’s in, even the final battle. In Ip Man 2, he’s still in God Mode for much of the film, which makes that movie’s final battle feel out of place; what’s more, Ip Man’s solution of how to best his overpowered opponent would have been the first thing a skilled martial artist would consider, not the last. There was rarely a sense of danger. Ip Man 3, by contrast, seems to acknowledge that Ip Man is nigh invulnerable despite his age. The danger comes from having to defend other people nearby rather than just defending himself. It’s a simple but great idea, and it leads to a harrowing rescue attempt as well as an excellent sequence involving an elevator later in the film.
Much has been made of Donnie Yen and Mike Tyson’s bout in the film, and it’s one of the film’s highlights, and it was more exciting than the Wing Chun vs. boxing bout that finished Ip Man 2. And yet the fight reveals Tyson’s presence in Ip Man 3 as some hollow stunt casting. There’s something great about Tyson cursing people out in snatches of Cantonese, but the entire storyline involving his character is dropped at a certain point. The whole impetus for the action fades away, which makes me wonder if Tyson was only available for a week or so, or if a finger fracture Tyson sustained while filming the fight scene required changes to the script.
Even though Tyson’s plotline feels unfinished, it’s fascinating where the other threads go, and how they reveal the foundation for Ip Man as a character, as if Yen and Yip are tying to make their final definitive statements about who Ip Man was and what he’ll represent as a cinematic icon moving forward.
Ip Man’s a loving husband, for instance, but not always attentive (think about how Peter Parker’s love life is ruined by having to be Spider-Man). Here, he tries to focus more on home and what matters to him most, and there are some tender moments between Yen and Hung, as if Yen’s trying to channel the acting chops that Anthony Wong and Tony Leung brought to the role, and Hung is trying to find the right note of melancholy glamour that Zhang Ziyi brings to her roles. Some of these scenes between Ip Man and his wife are lensed with a level of attention that might have been inspired by The Grandmaster; more beautiful to look at than anything in the previous Ip Man films, though a few scenes are marred by a semi-chintzy nylon-string Spanish guitar love theme.
I began to notice this steady evolution of Ip Man’s presence as a political/cultural icon as well in Ip Man 3. The first film was decidedly against the Imperial Japanese forces, which places Ip Man in the home of a character like Chen Zhen from Fist of Fury. The second film skirted this line between anti-colonialism and Chinese nationalism, with the British aristocrats rendered as grotesques of the nobility. Ip Man 3 also has a scoffing, snooty British caricature (he sounds like he should be tying women to railroad tracks while twirling his mustache), but the political stance is decidedly anti-colonial in a universal way. Ip Man even has a monologue in which he rails against oligarchs and plutocrats. If Mike Tyson was cast as a way of garnering attention for Ip Man from western audiences, this populist shift in Ip Man may signal an attempt to position him as a cinematic hero with a strong cultural identity but no borders in terms of an audience’s ability to identify with him.
If this is Yen’s last full-on kung-fu film (there’s still that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel to consider), he’s ending his career with the movie series that catapulted him into leading man status. I got a sense he was passing the torch to Max Zhang. Zhang’s 41 years old, but he makes a strong impression here as a performer and fighter, just as he did in The Grandmaster. (In another strange coincidence, Zhang also starred in SPL 2, the sequel to the 2005 movie (aka Kill Zone) that boosted Donnie Yen’s star and signaled a kind of comeback for Hong Kong action films.) Zhang’s character is a Wing Chun up-and-comer eyeing Ip Man, sizing him up, wondering if he’s better as new blood. This had to be intentional, they had know what they were doing.
Ip Man 3 might be my favorite film of the trilogy because of how knowing and assured it is, and because it understands the core of its main character so well. It’s also a film that knows where it stands in terms of martial arts film history, and the same goes for Donnie Yen’s filmography. Really, there’s something rather Ip Man-like about Ip Man 3.