From the outside, my barbershop on First Hill looks like every Main Street America tonsorial parlor, complete with the striped helix of the traditional barber pole. Inside, the tiny space is a pleasant glimpse into another culture: the aroma of Asian takeout, twangy music, and occasionally a Vietnamese epic playing on a monitor. During one visit, the owner explained to me the plot of one of these melodramas. I’m pretty sure it was certifiably unfollowable, unless you’d seen the story many times, which I take it she had.
I am fascinated by the universe of world culture that barely penetrates the average American’s radar (including my own) yet occupies a huge amount of space on the menu of the rest of the globe. For instance, the films of Bollywood—shorthand for India’s incredibly prolific moviemaking system—resonate in barbershops from Nairobi to Sao Paulo to Hanoi.
Ip Man 3 can be found in the Chinese section of this global menu. It hails from a genre that, since the heyday of Bruce Lee, actually has made some inroads in the U.S.: the martial-arts picture. Still, this movie will open in only a handful of theaters stateside, and will be treated casually, if at all, by a media geared toward English-language releases. But wherever in the world it plays, it will play like gangbusters. Built around cheerfully broad emotional deck-stacking, well-spaced fight scenes, and charismatic actors, Ip Man 3 delivers its punches with confidence. Far from the grit of exploitation flicks, it looks terrific, full of vivid color and period design; the fighting has the precise spatial logic associated with action director Yuen Woo-Ping (of Crouching Tiger and The Matrix renown). The movie even has a role for Mike Tyson, who is not among its more charismatic actors but whose presence speaks to the film’s no-translation-necessary worldwide appeal. Tyson’s presence is akin to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar showing up in Bruce Lee’s Game of Death—less a matter of “Why?” than “Why not?”
As its title suggests, Ip Man 3 is third in a series documenting (with hefty fictionalization) a real-life kung fu grandmaster. The real Ip Man (or Yip Man) defined a new school of martial arts called Wing Chun, and counted among his pupils the great Bruce Lee himself. Ip Man has lately become a cottage industry in Chinese film, with another competing series and one bona fide arthouse entry, Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster. Donnie Yen plays the title role in this series, and he’s ideal for the part. He leads with his wide smile and generous eyes; one scene shows his satisfaction at changing a light bulb at home—he’s like a rebuke to action stars who think their authority is established with brooding and pose-striking.
This installment is set in 1959 Hong Kong, where Ip Man has settled with his wife (Lynn Hung) and his widely admired fight school. Director Wilson Yip, Yen’s partner in the trilogy, leads with a deft gag involving Bruce Lee (played by Chan Kwok-Kwan) and a packet of cigarettes, then gives over the first half of the film to a plot about a criminal gang that wants to destroy a grade school.
If that sounds like crudely drawn melodrama, it is. Movies like this are engineered to create foot-stomping reactions, and you should feel your blood boiling around the 10-minute mark. The second half sets Ip Man against a mysterious new rival (Zhang Yin), and also against a foreign devil, Tyson’s corrupt American developer—a plot thread that allows for some of the nationalistic chest-thumping seen in the first two Ip Man pictures, including a moment when a British official sarcastically asks a Hong Kong police chief whether he understands Chinese. Tyson gets one big sequence with Yen, a hand-to-hand scrap that registers in tooth-rattling detail. (Tyson has dialogue in both English and Cantonese, although at any given moment it’s hard to tell which he’s speaking.)
Lopsided in its storytelling and brazen in its string-pulling, Ip Man 3 is no masterpiece. With so much quality cinema in theaters during awards season, it will be overlooked by tasteful cinephiles. But if you’re curious about what kind of thing actually connects with audiences around the globe, this movie will tick all the boxes.
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