IP Man: Kung Fu Master (M, 84 minutes)
Ip Man has been a successful and lucrative franchise in the Chinese martial arts genre. Much like those instances where multiple Hollywood producers latch onto the same idea and we get two Robin Hood films in the same year, two Truman Capote films, two animated penguin films, et cetera, there has been a long-running feuding series of films made by different production teams about the famed Ip Man.
Who or what is an Ip Man, you ask?
He was a real person.
Ip Kai-man was a Wing Chun martial arts master, notorious in the middle of the last century for leading resistance against the Japanese, ensuring justice after the war, establishing a series of Kung Fu schools.
His biggest claim to fame is that he is the master under whom Bruce Lee studied.
In Foshan, in the years before World War II, Ip Man (Dennis To) is a police captain who uses his martial arts skills to help keep the peace in a harbour city filled with crime.
Chief among the city's underworld is the notorious The Axes group, a crime gang who carry around axes, headed up by Third Father (Michael Wong) and with his organisation's Number Two, his daughter (Wanliruo Xin).
The city's equilibrium is severely disrupted when a Japanese strongman moves into the wharves, knocks off Third Father and takes over the opium importing business. Swimming in cash, the Japanese Don has much of the police force in his pocket - including, apparently, the police chief - as well as buying the loyalty of the competing Axe army.
This seems insurmountable for the usually dauntless Ip Man. With friends being knocked off all around him and his wife having just given birth to their son, Ip Man concedes defeat.
Until, that is, the local drunkard who has been pestering Ip Man turns out to be the legendary Wing Chun Master (Dongfeng Yue) who is the brother of Ip Man's own Master. With the Master by his side, perhaps Ip Man could restore order after all.
With four main features in the Ip Man series, this film is something of a side story.
Much like Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan and Craig all playing James Bond, Ip Man has had a few leading men in the role.
I'm talking slow motion, I'm talking loud, slow mood music, I'm talking hard edits that make audiences used to traditional linear storytelling wonder if they've had a microsleep and missed a pivotal moment.
Donnie Yen played the title character in Ip Man numbers 1 to 4, and this makes Dennis To's third outing in the role, in films including Ip Man: The Legend is Born and Kung Fu Master (sort of the Woody Allen version of Casino Royale of the Ip Man franchise).
Director Li Liming breathes life into some spectacular fight scenes in this film, but is also culpable for more than a handful of those frustrating tropes that aren't the sole domain of Chinese cinema, but have been adopted and employed like nowhere else. I'm talking slow motion, I'm talking loud, slow mood music, I'm talking hard edits that make audiences used to traditional linear storytelling wonder if they've had a microsleep and missed a pivotal moment.
Audiences whose experience with martial arts on the big and small screen begins and ends with Monkey ( the 1970s series or the newer one) will enjoy those moments when two dozen of the enemy appear immediately behind our hero. All are absolutely able to step in and deliver a blow that would end the whole thing, but are standing by giving the impression of moving in but obviously waiting their turn.
Liming employs some interesting crowd staging in one scene where Ip Man faces off against The Axes. Like a flower leaning toward the sun, the fighters are standing in a pattern that make Ip Man's one-at-a-time dismantling of the collective feel vaguely plausible.
The story engages in the Japan-bashing that is authentic to the era - the Japanese army move into the Mainland - though with some key "bad" characters demonstrating more depth than usual.
In a nod to Bruce Lee's Kato from Green Hornet that made him famous in Hollywood, one of the Wing Chun masters adopts a black mask. It's a nice touch.
A Chinese saying goes: The dead should be respected and those who mourn the dead are all guests.