I’ve watched and enjoyed all the movies made about Ip Man so far, but IP MAN 3 is the first one I’ve seen on the big screen. A really big screen at a multiplex with only four other people in the audience. I feel like I should send AMC a thank you card.
After three years Donnie Yen returns to what has become one of his greatest roles, the real life Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man, most famous here as a guy who taught Bruce Lee. Director Wilson Yip (SPL/KILL ZONE) and writer Edmond Wong (DRAGON TIGER GATE) also return, but the great fight choreographer Sammo Hung has been replaced by the also great Yuen Woo Ping. The weird thing about that is that Yuen did Wong Kar Wai’s rival Ip Man movie THE GRANDMASTER.
Part 2 took place in the early ’50s, with Ip Man and his family moving to Hong Kong, where he set up a Wing Chun school. Now it’s ’59 and he’s still living humbly in a small apartment with his wife (still played by Lynn Hung) and youngest son. We don’t really see him teaching anymore but apparently he is because he still has all his fiercely loyal disciples, and he’s getting into trouble with the wife and the kid’s school (math and reading type school, not fighting) for always working too late.
Once again this story involves a public challenge by another martial arts teacher trying to prove superiority over the local legend. This time it’s not a different style against Wing Chun, it’s a guy saying that he has pure Wing Chun and Ip Man is peddling some bullshit watered down autotune Wing Chun. This guy shouldn’t be fuckin with Ip Man, but he’s a sympathetic enough character that I didn’t initially realize he was gonna be the antagonist.
For a while he’s not. Ip Man meets Sum Nung (Jin Zhang, also in THE GRANDMASTER as a different character) after their sons get in a fight at school, bragging about their Wing Chun. The boys become friends and parallels are drawn between their fathers. Both show up late to meet with the principal. Ip Man defends Tin-chi, saying that work is always more important. (When he says it it sounds like it’s supposed to be common sense, but he’ll change his tune on that.) They both taught their sons to fight, both descend from the same school of Wing Chun, both end up fighting to protect the school from the gangsters who want the land it’s built on. But Nung’s ego causes them to have a challenge fight just like their “kids being naughty” did at school. It’s subtle about it but basically it’s comparing the thing that all of these movies are about to little boys being dipshits on the playground.
It’s still refreshing to see a character who’s a total badass but with no ego or aggression, completely accommodating in all personal interactions. Ip Man will always swallow his pride and apologize even though he rarely is at fault. This is not just with people who want to fight him, but also with his wife when she’s angry and slaps him.
“It was my fault. I was wrong,” he says immediately. “It was my fault. I’m sorry.” Not in a pathetic way, more like he’s willing to take the hit to defuse the conflict.
When the challenge happens and all the students and the press and local masters and everybody are freaking out over Ip Man defending his legacy, he finds out his wife is sick and doesn’t even bother to go or tell anyone that he’d rather be dancing. This is pretty standard Hong Kong melodrama in that the wife is only seen being disappointed about Ip Man working too much, then feeling her stomach hurt, then finding out she has cancer. And rather than depicting the ravages of the disease we mostly see her looking pretty and sad. Still, their relationship has been built up enough over the three movies that it is very sad and the obvious moral about having time for your family is pretty effective.
He’s got to be the calmest of the iconic martial arts characters. Yen (who doesn’t look aged that much since the other movies even though he’s now supposed to be about 66 years old) is really impressive in these movies because he’s not only doing great fight scenes in a specific style that he had to learn, but because he’s giving a really good character performance that’s different from his other movies. Watch his face during the fights. That’s not Donnie Yen’s face, it’s his version of Ip Man’s face. It’s great.
Before it turns into a challenge movie it’s another tried and true action movie formula: standing up against the gangsters who are threatening people to get their property. As the neighborhood’s greatest hero it’s up to Ip Man to intervene when thugs are threatening the principal, when they board up the school and when they set it on fire. Sometimes backed up by his disciples, sometimes by Tin-chi or his mentor Master Tin (Ka-Yan Leung, TRUE LEGEND, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS), sometimes alone, he keeps having to face down big crowds of gangsters. He uses poles and blades in this but also just armlocks.
One of the best fights is a more intimate one. He’s on an elevator with his wife and gets attacked by a beefy Thai boxer (Sarut Khanwilai, Tony Jaa’s stunt double from SKIN TRADE). So it’s a close-quarters fight with these thunderous elbows and hammering fists hitting the sides of the elevator and coming close to hitting his wife. Ip Man gets him off of the elevator and closes his wife inside. Then when he’s done he opens the door again and gets her. She doesn’t have to watch.
In that fight there’s a pretty long take that’s a really cool overhead shot of them fighting down a couple sets of stairs. I noticed there’s some good use of stairs and banisters in these fights, making me think of an iconic Yuen Woo Ping creation, Beatrix running down the banister in the House of Blue Leaves.
In Hong Kong this was released in 3D, which must’ve been pretty cool because there are many gimmick shots in it. There’s a scene involving the slow motion kicking of cigarettes toward the camera. When there’s a pole fight, both combatants are sure to point theirs in the direction of the camera. There’s an important moment involving a finger chop to the eyes, and that’s shot with the fingers flying toward our eyes.
There was some hype about this being the one that finally deals with Ip Man teaching Bruce Lee. Last time we saw him as a cocky little kid who showed up wanting to learn Wing Chun, but Ip Man (historically inaccurately) told him he was too young. In this one he comes asking again, played by Kwok-Kwan Chan, the Bruce Lee lookalike goalie from SHAOLIN SOCCER and star of the TV series The Legend of Bruce Lee. But they don’t turn him into a co-star in the Legend of Ip Man, he’s just in a couple scenes with references to his “be like water” quote, his cha-cha dancing and the way he would wipe the side of his nose with his knuckle.
The more significant co-star is Mike Tyson as the gang boss. His part as the “foreign devil” Frank doesn’t require much acting, and his interspersed Cantonese phrases are dubbed (I think by an imitator, but possibly by himself after more practice). But his fight with Ip Man is the highlight of the movie. Because of the size difference, his build and his history of crushing people with his fists, I was actually a little worried for Ip Man. He’s like a sharp kitchen knife fighting against a sledge hammer.
Frank is a bad person but (and this is one reason why I love martial arts movies) he has a sense of honor and respect for fighting skill, so this is more of a contest than a duel. They’re in his office, he sets an alarm clock and tells Ip Man if he can survive three minutes with him he’ll leave him alone. Of course he does last three minutes, so Frank goes over and turns off the alarm and that’s that. He doesn’t even have to say anything.
There’s a poetic moment during the fight when Frank is swinging at Ip Man and punching out a row of windows. It cuts to his little daughter in a room below as shards of glass shower down. She’s just sitting there holding a balloon, totally innocent, not understanding the violence going on above, or even the danger of the glass. And then with a quiet little “snk” one of the shards cuts the string of her balloon and it floats gently up to the rafters.
After the fight Frankie talks to her lovingly about getting a new balloon, and that’s the last time we see him.
I think there’s kind of a Peckinpah thing going on here with these shots of children witnessing fights. In the climactic duel it cuts to both fighters’ sons watching from the stairs above. When the fathers’ knives scrape together, one of the boys squeals. It’s not a cry of fear, just boyish annoyance with the fingernails-on-a-chalkboard type sound. They can’t really comprehend what’s going on here.
I think I like this third best of the official Ip Man trilogy (and I like THE GRANDMASTER better than those), and if it ends up being the last one that’ll be weird, because it seems more like an installment than a conclusion. But it’s still a movie I really enjoyed. You can take my word for it and stop reading now but if not I’m gonna SPOIL a nice moment from the ending to give an example of why I love these movies. Nung, who has a James Dean type of cool and came from humble beginnings as a rickshaw driver, makes a bad choice to commit a crime to get money to start his school, and then suddenly turns into an egomaniac, a change as abrupt as Anakin Skywalker or Tommy “The Machine” Gunn. He wants to be the best so bad that even before receiving his public match against Ip Man he commissions a big fancy sign declaring himself “GRANDMASTER OF WING CHUN.”
Eventually they get their match, and of course the old man wins. Cut to a shot of the Grandmaster sign being broken in half. It’s thrilling partly because it reminds you of an iconic screen moment for his famous student, the sign breaking in FIST OF FURY. But then the camera pulls back to reveal that it’s not Ip Man smashing the sign. Of course not. He doesn’t care about that stuff. It’s Tin-chi himself, acknowledging defeat. Sportsmanship. Honor. I love that shit.
The Ip Man saga:
IP MAN (2008)
IP MAN 2 (2010)
THE LEGEND IS BORN: IP MAN (2010) starring Dennis To as young Ip Man
THE GRANDMASTER (2013) starring Tony Leung as Ip Man
IP MAN: THE FINAL FIGHT (2013) starring Anthony Wong as older Ip Man
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.