In the review for The Legend Is Born: Ip Man, I mentioned how the character of Yip Man seems to be turning into the new Wong Fei-Hung. Here’s a real-life historical figure who’s suddenly become an idealized version of the real-life historical figure on the big screen.
Countless actors have played Wong Fei-Hung — Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Gordon Liu, Vincent Zhao, Kwan Tak Hing — but in an odd way, they weren’t really playing Wong Fei-Hung. The actors played themselves in Wong Fei-Hung garb. Think of actors playing Abraham Lincoln, who are really just giving their interpretation of Abraham Lincoln.
What’s interesting with The Final Fight is the stunt casting. Rather than a martial artist playing Yip Man, it’s the venerable Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong. The result, as Steve over at Unseen Films said to me a couple days ago, is the human side of Yip Man, or maybe it’s the human side of Anthony Wong wearing a Yip Man costume.
[This review was originally posted as part of our 2013 New York Asian Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the limited theatrical release of the film.]
Ip Man: The Final Fight (Jip6 Man6: Zung1-gik6 Jat1 Zin3 | 叶问：终极一战)
Director: Herman Yau
Country: China (Hong Kong)
Release Date: March 22, 2013 (China); September 20, 2013 (US limited)
Much like The Legend is Born, The Final Fight operates in the mold of the old-fashioned biopic. The movie chronicles about 20 years in the life of an older Yip Man. It’s the post-war period, however, so the oppression of the Imperial Japanese isn’t bearing down on the country or on the film. The dread of annihilation is gone and the reactionary nationalism in many films about the Sino-Japanese conflict has been swapped for unbridled nostalgia. The Hong Kong of this time seems idyllic even though there’s brimming social unrest. Workers call for rights on the job, and it feels at home with the bustle of rickshaws, the brightness of the cheongsams, the flutter of old love songs.
In some ways I found it hard to think of this as a sequel to The Legend Is Born. There’s little continuity between Dennis To’s portrayal of a young Yip Man and Wong’s take on the older Yip Man. To’s young Yip Man was noble but lacking in personality. Compare that to Donnie Yen in the Wilson Yip films: a badass chivalric Wing Chun machine with leading man charisma. What Wong brings to Yip Man is gravitas. This is Yip Man by way of Yoda and Morgan Freeman. He’s a sage to numerous Wing Chun students in the film, and selfless to a fault like most noble cinematic heroes. “A warrior and a scholar!” a character declares after hearing one of Yip Man’s poems in the newspaper.
Wong isn’t really known as a martial artist. He went on a diet (the real Yip Man was very skinny) and trained in Wing Chun for a year prior to taking this role. The fights in the movie are fewer than The Legend Is Born, and yet they feel more invigorating. The choreography by Xiong Xin-Xin (Once Upon a Time in China 3) stresses a cleanness and groundedness of movement that’s free from overt wirework or near-superheroics. It’s stylized fighting that feels more real than the young Yip Man film. The fights may also be interesting since it’s Wong doing so much of it himself. He looks comfortable as he goes from move to move, dishing out flurries of punches to the chest with the occasional high kick to the jaw. It’s as impressive as Daniel Day Lewis doing MMA in a stovepipe hat and a beard.
My first exposure to Anthony Wong came in a much different Herman Yau film from 1993 called The Untold Story: Human Meat Pies. I’d seen Wong before in Hard Boiled, but I always noticed him after The Untold Story. Wong played a ruthless psychopath who murders people, chops up their bodies, and puts their flesh in the pork buns he sells at his restaurant. (The film was allegedly based on an actual crime in Macau.) The Wong sections of the film are inhumane, particularly when we see what he did to the previous owners of the restaurant. This bleakness is off-set by the goofy detectives in the film, though it’s not as bad as the bumbling cops from Last House on the Left.
Every Wong movie I see is measured against this role. What Wong’s shown over the years, aside from staggering productivity (he has 174 acting credits on IMDb), is versatility. He can play a sociopath, a suave criminal, a wizened older cop, and a goon, and he’ll fully inhabit these parts. With Yip Man, there’s something fascinating about what Wong is doing, even in the still moments where he’s lost in thought and about to smoke a hand-rolled cigarette.
There’s a scene where Yip Man and his wife are together. She’s come to Hong Kong from Foshan, and there’s a dignified giddiness to Wong’s performance when he’s with her. They’ve been living apart for a long time, and it’s one of the few sequences of The Final Fight where Yip Man isn’t in Yoda mode. The couple are in bed and it’s cold, and Yip Man’s students bring up a comforter for them. It’s a kind of Capra moment. Yip Man and his wife turn toward each other with eyes locked. Yip Man hasn’t been this happy in a long while. It’s so old-timey and might have been schmaltzy if Wong wasn’t so good.
Wong is the real strength of The Final Fight, and as long as he’s on screen there’s something worth noticing. Where the film falters is its looseness, which might be a consequence of the post-war setting. Without the Imperial Japanese as an obvious foil and without Yip Man as a symbol of Chinese persistence in the face of an outside force, there’s almost no conflict that drives the film. In some ways it works since it’s about the winding down of Yip Man’s life, and yet it’s a little off. Matters of plot and proportion are the ultimate difficulty of biopics — too much plot molding doesn’t feel like real life, too little feels like the narrative is meandering.
There’s a fight against the head of a rival martial arts school (played by Wong’s Infernal Affairs co-star Eric Tsang) which reveals character rather than builds conflict. It’s more like a tussle between two righteous men with mutual respect, which has an interesting payoff in a quiet scene following another fight. Eventually a sideplot involving a criminal in Kowloon Walled City drives the last half (really the last third) of the story, but it feels forced. Whereas The Legend Is Born is too rounded with its plot and ties its slew of fight scenes together with a bow of movie intrigues (i.e., sibling rivalries, love triangles, double crosses, betrayals), The Final Fight begins to droop and its last action scene feels perfunctory.
The Final Fight is an admirable effort that adds a new take on Yip Man even if it doesn’t quite work. I actually can’t wait to see what Tony Leung (another Hong Kong great) brings to Yip Man in Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster, or more accurately, what part of himself he’ll reveal in the guise of Yip Man.
On the note of other Yip Mans, I think the third Donnie Yen/Wilson Yip Ip Man film (whenever it comes) will take place at some point in this post-war period as well. How will they handle this this era without a handy conflict? Will Yip Man become a social crusader, a warrior against water rationing? Will this social unrest become integral to the plot rather than part of the film’s historical garnish — Wong Fei-Hung meets Woodie Guthrie? Whatever happens, it’ll be tough to match Wong’s grace as a guiding force.