MASTER Z: THE IP MAN LEGACY is the new film directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, a spinoff of IP MAN 3, which he was the choreographer for. It will make sense even if you haven’t seen that or the rest of the IP MAN series, though you should see them anyway, because they’re great. Donnie Yen is a producer of this one, but doesn’t appear other than in brief black and white flashes to establish the backstory.
In the tradition of UNDISPUTED II and III, MASTER Z takes the antagonist from the previous film and makes him the hero. Max Zhang (the main henchman from KILL ZONE 2) returns as Cheung Tin Chi, which I guess must sometimes be translated as Zheung, otherwise I have no idea why this is called MASTER Z. He was a younger teacher who defeated the great Wing Chun Grandmaster Ip Man in a public challenge, became legendary himself, but got too big for his britches and was ultimately defeated in a private challenge. Now he’s left martial arts – including turning down what could be well paying gigs as an enforcer – and runs a small grocery store.
No problem. Wasn’t he a rickshaw driver before he opened his school? And that can’t be that long ago because the son he raises by himself is still very young. He didn’t have long enough to get addicted to the celebrity lifestyle. (This presumably takes place in the early ’60s, which mostly just means the clothes are pretty cool.)
He’s trying to just live a quiet life, but you know how these things go. He’s making a delivery on his bicycle and some gangsters bump him. They’re in the middle of a fight with rich lady Julia (Liu Yan, THE THOUSAND FACES OF DUNJIA) over an opium debt incurred by her sister Nana (Chrissie Chau, who was on an Ip Man tv series) and they make a mistake of knocking over a birthday present Tin Chi bought for his kid. So he beats the shit out of all of them, even their scary pony-tailed boss Kit (Kevin Cheng, also in the Ip Man tv series). So the next thing you know Tin Chi is in a one man battle with gangsters willing to stand around laughing while tossing molotov cocktails into his place at night.
Having lost his home and place of business, Julia invites Tin Chi to live and work at Gold Bar, a fancy establishment owned by her brother Fu (Yu Xing, who played a different character in the first IP MAN). I like the relationship between Tin Chi and Fu, which starts out adversarial, includes a casual rooftop fight challenge, and turns into drinking buddies and co-vigilantes.
The story centers around Bar Street, which looks kinda like the set of GRAFFITI BRIDGE. I thought it was a cool soundstage creation, but since Woo-Ping mentioned worries about a typhoon in Fred Topel’s interview I’m not sure. At any rate, it’s a street between a bunch of clubs, lit by huge Vegas-like neon signs. An early but great fight scene has Tin Chi climbing up bamboo structures and fighting guys while nimbly standing on or jumping from the tops of the signs.
Somehow I forgot Tony Jaa was gonna have a “special appearance,” so I was thrilled to see him standing by to kick ass in an early scene. His character is the Boba Fett of this shit, a mysterious fedora-wearing enforcer apparently called “Sadi the Warrior.” He only shows up occasionally, but does have a fight with Tin Chi that pits our hero’s sleek sharpness against Jaa’s beefy bluntness, huge-looking fists hammering flesh and smashing through windows. If there’s gonna be more Ip Man Cinematic Universe I’ll be looking for Sadi.
Michelle Yeoh is also credited as a special appearance, but she has a much more central role as Mrs. Kwan, the sister and superior of Kit. She’s an unpredictable character who does scary mob boss shit but displays signs of honor and pisses off her brother by trying to transition their family syndicate into a legal (and therefore less profitable) business.
I feel like a dummy for this, but when Dave Bautista’s character Owen Davidson was introduced as a nice guy I took it at face value and thought he would be a cool, friendly ally to Tin Chi. I didn’t even catch on when we saw he was wearing a friendship bracelet from a child and he said that he volunteers at an orphanage. Obviously that’s laying it on too thick, but I thought they were just playing into how lovable Bautista is.
Of course he’s the bad guy, the gweilo who represents the colonizers, talks shit about the Chinese and pays off the cops so he can run drugs out of his fancy restaurant. And I guess even more of course he’s the giant guy who Tin Chi has to fight at the climax. It is spectacular to see Bautista get the Woo-Ping treatment, moving in ways we’ve never seen him move before, but emphasizing his size and power, lifting people off the ground, punches like battering rams that send bodies flying and crunching into walls. He gets a few moves that seem pro wrestling inspired, though he never goes through with the piledriver I kept thinking was coming. The fights also benefit from his development as an actor – he’s getting personality across in his expressions without the WWE style exaggeration.
His character is a giant-sized proper gentleman, his huge shoulders covered with expensive-looking tailored suits and vests. Always polite, runs a charity auction, keeps the peace during controversy, all from his fancy steak house that Tin Chi has to save up to go to on special occasions. So I love that the climactic duel is Tin Chi vs. Mr. Davidson alone in the restaurant and they’re smashing through tables, running over booths, breaking the furniture and glass dividers. By the end of it the whole place has been trashed and Davidson is running out onto the street stripped down, sweaty and disheveled. His whole surface has been dismantled. And none of the other less than ten people in the theater seemed to agree, but I thought the sight of Bautista fleeing like a coward was hilarious.
The fight also has the one moment where you really benefit from having seen the IP MAN movies. Like Ip Man, Tin Chi announces his name and his fighting style of Wing Chun. That’s something I always think is cool, but in this context it’s also moving because he’s getting over his bitterness from the events of the other movie and returning to the style he claimed he didn’t need. It also makes alot of sense when fighting Bautista, because Wing Chun is said to have been created by a woman as a way to fight opponents bigger and stronger than you. Also in this scene the IP MAN theme starts to play, and I don’t know if that means it’s actually the Wing Chun theme, or that Tin Chi is using what he learned from (losing to) Ip Man to defeat Mr. Davidson – the titular Ip Man legacy! – but it sure got me pumped.
As great as all that is, I actually think the highlight is an earlier fight where Yeoh’s character gets involved – and uses a sword! It’s such a thrill to see her leaping onto furniture and fighting like that again, especially in the business clothes and heels that represent her current status. And there’s some classic Woo-Ping shit with the sword slicing through furniture, clothes and curtains.
This isn’t as serious or classy as the first IP MAN, and there are certainly some clunky parts, like a few awkwardly abrupt transitions, and some questionable rocking out on the score during fight scenes. Tin Chi’s father-son melodrama (coming home too late on the kid’s birthday is an actual plot element) is repetitive of IP MAN 3 without adding anything original to it. And it’s fair to say that Tin Chi, while a good character played by an exciting new martial arts star, is not as compelling as Ip Man and his uniquely humble manner of navigating badass kung fu shit. I’m sure some people will feel that parts of this are more like MASTER ZZZZZzzzzz.
But man, I love this shit. These flawed people, once incredible warriors, now seeking peace and refuge selling groceries or serving drinks, finding themselves drawn through their circumstances, their codes and their talents into martial arts challenges, gang wars, and opportunities to help people, in blatant disregard of both the laws of the government and of physics. It’s a profundly corrupt world that can be fixed, but it will involve making alliances, climbing bamboo scaffolding, kicking furniture across rooms, beating up crooked cops and doing flying kicks through windows. Heaven.