Ip Man: Kung Fu Master: punching hard, hitting air

It isn’t easy to match the legacy of the Ip Man movies and unfortunately, Ip Man: Kung Fu Master misses the target.

As a 4th generation Ip Man student who has both trained in and taught Wing Chun kung fu for over 12 years, I was beside myself with joy when the first Ip Man biopic was released in 2008, and over the past decade, I have thoroughly enjoyed the transformation of my great-great grand-teacher into a folk legend. I can safely say, Ip Man has been elevated to the ranks of Wong Fei Hong—another Chinese martial arts folk legend made famous by Jet Li’s Once Upon a Time in China series of the ‘90s.

Director and screenwriter Liming Li brings the legendary Ip Man back into the spotlight once again in Ip Man: Kung Fu Master. Yu-Hang To (Dennis To) plays Ip Man, alongside co-stars Michael Wong, Dongfeng Yue, and Wanliruo Xin. To, being no stranger to the role, previously played the hero in The Legend is Born – Ip Man (2010), and prior to taking on the titular character, he debuted as an actor playing minor roles first in Donnie Yen’s Ip Man (2008) and again in Ip Man 2 (2010).

Kung Fu Master is set during Ip Man’s time serving as a police officer in his hometown of Foshan. Ip Man finds himself caught up in a war between the infamous Chinese axe-gang and Japanese invaders. Between a murder conspiracy, unbelievable one-against-a-hundred battles, the requisite one-on-one duel with a Japanese military karate master, and Ip Man’s unyielding moral principles, we have all the standard plot elements  that typically make an exciting and action-packed kung fu movie.

Too much, too little time 

The film opens with a beautifully crafted scene that juxtaposes an almost zen-like Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) match being played while Ip single-handedly battles over a hundred opponents up to the top floor, where the criminal he intends to apprehend is playing said match. It’s a sequence that can only be described as Game of Death meets The Matrix Reloaded.

Sadly, this is where the film peaks.

A still from IP Man: Kung Fu Master directed by Liming Li
Photo credit: Baile Media, Beijing Kai Pictures, and Beijing Palm Entertainment

From this point on, the story feels like a compilation of highlights from the past decade’s worth of Ip Man films, as well as other legendary kung fu movies. From the requisite evil Japanese antagonists, one-on-one stage duels, Ip Man’s unyielding quest for justice, to the bewildering inclusion of (or homage to?) a black masked hero (think: Bruce Lee’s Kato) – it’s almost impossible to not draw parallels. Despite each borrowed elements’ success in its respective film, as a compilation, Kung Fu Master delivers a story with too many components and not enough substance for the viewer to become emotionally invested.

Being only an 84 minute film, abrupt transitions and unclear timelapses leave the viewer feeling like critical moments in emotional and plot development were forgotten on the cutting room floor. If I were to give the film the benefit of the doubt, I would imagine that with an additional 25 minutes to work with, this movie had the potential to tell a fairly cohesive story with decent character development.

Instead, we’re presenting with one-dimensional characters. 

Flat characters  

If we’re lucky, the characters in this film experience one of two emotions: flat or angry. While To’s delivery of on-screen action is an improvement over his 2010 performance, his rendition of Ip Man as a seasoned police officer, new father, and man of principles, falls terribly flat. 

In fact, most of the characters feel either over or underacted, with the only believable character being Michael Wong’s San Ye. While Wong’s presence and acting steals every scene that he’s in, sadly, he’s only featured in the first 17 minutes of the movie. With a more prominent role for Wong in the storyline, we could have experienced much richer acting. 

A still from IP Man: Kung Fu Master directed by Liming Li
Photo credit: Baile Media, Beijing Kai Pictures, and Beijing Palm Entertainment

Additionally, the way that Ip Man is characterized doesn’t mesh with the not-so-subtle nationalist overtones of the broader story. Kung Fu Master sets up Ip Man as a person who does what he believes is right. He’s motivated by the pursuit of justice.. More than once, he delivers short speeches expressing his undying faith in the law as a means for justice – and even gives up being a member of a corrupt police force to continue to uphold the law as a black-masked vigilante. 

Unfortunately, in a pivotal scene after an uninspiring duel, as Ip stands victorious, he is surrounded by a crowd of bystanders chanting “China!” in unison while waving handheld Kuomintang flags. Though the scene mirrors the finale of Ip Man (2008), where the film’s predecessor has the bystanders chant “Ip Man!”, Kung Fu Master’s bystanders chant “China!” It just seems like an inelegant way of expressing nationalist themes. There are more subtle ways to weave in patriotism. 

Overall, it’s a very unsophisticated story, particularly when we have a rich history of deep and well written Ip Man films to look back on (think: Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster). The use of common tropes for antagonists leave you longing for more depth from the villains, and while it’s understandably hard to live up to the movie’s predecessors, the screenwriting for Kung Fu Master feels like amateur hour. Past Ip Man films leave the viewer on the edge of disbelief, with plots plausible enough that a good amount of the story could have been real. With Kung Fu Master, don’t worry—you won’t even entertain that thought.

Lack of immersion 

Although the film tries to delight with big sound and action, the overall production quality makes it hard not to feel like this was a film made for television. Action films—or any theatrical film, for that matter—should immerse the audience into its world. Instead, we have a film where the background music has two volumes: on and off.

Where previous Ip Man films masterfully take the background score and let it build and swell with the intended emotional intensity of each scene through the use of complex orchestral composition, Kung Fu Master disappoints with a lacklustre and dynamicless score that seems better suited for a TV soap opera.

While it’s common for films to re-dub dialogue, Kung Fu Master lacks proper balancing between dialogue and ambient background sounds, which are necessary to give the viewer a realistic experience. The result is that the dialogue feels completely disconnected from what you see on the screen. Screams, grunts, cries of anguish, even background white noise all feel disconnected from the actors’ attempts to bring the story to life. 

Movie kung fu is all about rhythm?

Ip Man films are known for their stellar fight scenes, showcasing the wing chun kung fu system in both spectacular one-versus-twenty brawls, as well as teeth-clenching one-on-one duels. And while the opening battle is a delightful smorgasbord of action and cool fast/slow-motion cuts, it becomes obvious that the film reveals all of its tricks in the first scene. 

A still from IP Man: Kung Fu Master directed by Liming Li
Photo credit: Baile Media, Beijing Kai Pictures, and Beijing Palm Entertainment

Subsequent action sequences overuse slow motion effects, and as the viewer, you become quickly fatigued by the intensity of each battle. Where other action movies implement strategies in fight choreography that build up dramatic tension, in Kung Fu Master’s fight sequences, every single move is in your face, and I found myself wanting to skip ahead to the next dialogue scene. 

In case it’s not obvious, that’s a bad thing for an action flick.

The choreography is good, and makes for entertaining fight sequences. But good isn’t enough, and the choreography is let down by poor cinematography. In an era where we are treated to long, single-take action sequences, such as those in Netflix’s Daredevil, or even the 1:1 fight sequences in 2008’s Ip Man, I found that this film used too many short clips and close-ups to construct action sequences. By doing so, the focus on the actor performing the fight as a whole is lost, and the viewer doesn’t truly believe that the fight is happening.

In a kung fu movie, techniques such as shaking the camera when a heavy punch or kick lands, or using a quick zoom pull to visualize a change in tempo of a fight sequence can make the difference between your viewer simply watching a fight or genuinely experiencing the intensity of the fight. As a choreographer, do you want the audience to simply be bystanders? Or do you want them to imagine themselves in the shoes of your hero? 

While the lack of using any of these advanced techniques is presumably a stylistic choice by the director, it’s one that doesn’t do the movie any favours.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for an entertaining film with no shortage of action, reasonably well choreographed kung fu, and a generous dusting of comedy, watch Ip Man: Kung Fu Master

If, however, you’re looking for a film that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the legacy of Ip Man inspired stories past, take you through some emotional highs and lows with a healthy dose of adrenaline, then I’d suggest revisiting the past 12 years of Ip Man inspired films over the holidays, instead.

Featured image from IP Man: Kung Fu Master directed by Liming Li
Photo credit: Baile Media, Beijing Kai Pictures, and Beijing Palm Entertainment

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