Ip Man: The Final Fight
Runs Fri., Sept. 20–Thurs., Sept. 26 at Grand Illusion. Rated PG-13. 102 minutes.
The flurry of films chronicling the exploits of legendary martial-arts master Ip Man (1893–1972) suggests that the subtitle here is misleading. The Final Fight? Not likely, not if this icon of coolness and nostalgia continues to sell tickets. It’s been a full three weeks since Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster was released, so to recap for the uninitiated: Ip Man changed the world of kung fu with his Wing Chun style, living long enough to send forth an army of followers and teachers, among them Bruce Lee. The Final Fight begins halfway through the story (director Herman Yau already surveyed his younger years in 2010’s The Legend Is Born: Ip Man), as the man (now played by Anthony Wong) arrives in Hong Kong in 1949 after the communist takeover of mainland China. He sets up a humble school in a rooftop studio, shrugs off rivals, and establishes a curious relationship with a loyal singer (Zhou Chuchu) whose loyalty to him seems to have sprung out of a 1950s Douglas Sirk picture. Which is not a bad thing.
The movie haphazardly tosses out a series of chewy scenes: Ip Man schooling his hazily sketched students, settling the occasional fight with a thug, and—in the film’s irresistible centerpiece—engaging another grandmaster (jovial Eric Tsang) in a showdown that becomes a mutual-admiration session. The Grandmaster’s loftier aspirations are nowhere to be seen here, but Yau’s storytelling beats turn out to be perfectly enjoyable on their own terms. The climactic stretch of kung fu is set up with the broadly drawn motivations you want in this kind of exercise.
In the lead role, Wong doesn’t have the fighting chops of someone like Donnie Yen, who played Ip Man in two action-oriented biopics, but that turns out to be all right. If anything, Wong’s propensity for just standing there stone-faced while fending off his opponents’ blows only adds to the mysterioso effect of Wing Chun. And the saturnine Wong is a real actor, a veteran of the Infernal Affairs trilogy and Jonnie To’s glorious Exiled. Fast hands are important in a martial-arts picture, but so are expressive eyes. Wong’s got them.