Ip Man 3 (2015)

aka Yip Man 3

2016 #108
Wilson Yip | 105 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Cantonese & English | 12 / PG-13

Donnie Yen returns as the eponymous kung fu master, who’s most famous for training Bruce Lee, to complete a trilogy of biographically-dubious but broadly entertaining actioners.

This time round, Ip comes into conflict with property developer Mike Tyson (yes, that Mike Tyson) when he tries to buy out Ip’s son’s primary school. The principal refuses, violence ensues, and Ip and his students end up essentially working as security guards. While he’s busy doing that, Ip is once again neglecting his home life, where his wife (Lynn Hung) is getting mysterious stomach pains…

That occupies most of the film, anyway, until it suddenly resolves what appears to be the main story a good half-hour from the end, then spins out one of the subplots into the main storyline for the third act. It’s a remarkably odd structural choice. On the bright side, that means it may just surprise you a little — it dodges the boredom of, “well he can’t win now because this fight can’t be the climax”, or, “well that guy’s totally going to go back on his word because there’s half-an-hour left yet”, and so on. Predictable it is not. Well, OK, a fair bit of it is still predictable — you know who’s going to win in the end, don’t you? — but how many movies have you seen where the main villain is dealt with and/or simply set aside at the end of act two, and an almost-completely-new story powers the final act?

The downside is it makes a lot of the story feel like a case of something-and-nothing. Tyson is no real threat, not least because he’s barely in the film and can’t act for toffee, but related subplots — like the potential romance between one of Ip’s students and one of the school’s teachers — literally disappear without a trace. Even when there’s a young pretender to Ip’s title of grandmaster, there’s little sense that they may’ve opted for a “changing of the guard”-type narrative for the trilogy-capper. And, as with both of the previous films, the less said about the film’s attitude to foreigners the better (though I guess Hong Kong’s British occupiers weren’t exactly above reproach).

However, the film does deliver in two key areas. The storyline of the wife’s illness finally tackles Ip’s family issues head on. That conflict between his dedication to his martial arts life and his consequent semi-abandonment of his family has been an undercurrent throughout all three films, but I don’t believe they’ve engaged with it fully until now. That he chooses to forgo a challenge to be by his wife’s side stands in counterpoint to the climax of the second film, where he missed his son’s birth to fight a duel. Not only that, but these events finally get under Ip’s unflappably stoic demeanour, and Yen lets Ip’s polite blank-faced reserve crack. In some respects, it pays off having kept that up for most of three movies. Maybe I’m just being soft today or maybe it is well performed, but either way I really felt the emotional impact of this storyline.

The other key area is the action, with famed choreographer Yuen Woo-ping taking over from Sammo Hung, who choreographed parts one and two. Early bouts are not bad, though surprisingly underwhelming, but things really pick up later on. An elevator fight between Ip and a Thai boxer is the absolute high point, an incredible close-quarters action scene that spills out into a stairwell, but Donnie Yen vs Mike Tyson is a very good sequence also, and the climax ain’t half bad. Particular props to the sound designers in that last one, especially the clanging, squealing knives.

After an awkward first half, Ip Man 3 gradually transitions into a rewarding set of circumstances, on both the action and emotional fronts. The lack of consistency may mean it doesn’t satisfy fans as much as the first film did, but I’d say it’s a step up from the second, and definitely worth a look for fans of the old punching-and-kicking-and-hitting-each-other-with-poles-and-knives.

4 out of 5

Ip Man 3 is available on Netflix UK from today.

The Grandmaster (2013)

aka Yi dai zong shi

2015 #160
Wong Kar Wai | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong & China / Mandarin & Cantonese | 15 / PG-13

As a Western viewer, if you know anything about Ip Man beyond “he’s the chap who trained Bruce Lee”, it’s probably thanks to the pair of eponymous biopics starring Donnie Yen (soon to become a trilogy). Heck, if you know that much there’s a fair chance it’s due to those films. This take on the man, directed and co-written by Wong Kar Wai and starring Tony Leung as Ip, is tonally very different.

Some of the facts remain the same, naturally: Ip is a master of Wing Chung in Foshan, China, until the Japanese occupation ruins everyone’s lives. Post-war, he moves to Hong Kong and sets up a school there. Concurrently, there’s something about being the grandmaster of martial arts in all of China, or somesuch. When the previous incumbent is murdered by his disciple, the old man’s daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), has revenge in mind.

The Grandmaster is very much more an arthouse version of the story than the Ip Mans’ accessible action-movie stylistics, with elliptical storytelling and a carefully-measured pace, even in the action sequences. I’ve seen at least one review criticise Wong for leaning too heavily into ‘genre’ pictures — I guess that critic doesn’t actually watch too many genre pictures, because a good number of genre fans criticise this for being too arty. It is more “arty” than “genre”, even given its inclusion of numerous fantastic fight scenes. The duels are stunning, though pure adrenaline-junkie viewers seem to find even those a disappointment. Well, they’re wrong.

It helps that it’s gorgeously shot. Ultra-crisp blue-black rain-soaked night time duels; rich golden hues in pre-occupation Foshan; cold bright-white snowy landscapes; a train platform fight that’s almost sepia-like. Between the photography and the ever-excellent action choreography of Yuen Woo-ping (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Kill Bill, et al), the film is immensely satisfying on a visual level.

One factor that may — or, as we will see, may not — have an effect on how the film fares beyond the purely visual is that there are at least three different cuts: a 130-minute original cut, a 122-minute international cut, and the 108-minute version released in the US by the Weinsten Company. “Ah,” you might think, “yet another Weinstein hack job.” Well, Wong himself says otherwise:

As a filmmaker, let me say that the luxury of creating a new cut for U.S. audiences was the opportunity to reshape it into something different than what I began with — a chance one doesn’t always get as a director and an undertaking much more meaningful than simply making something shorter or longer. The original version of The Grandmaster is about 2 hours, 10 minutes. Why not 2 hours, 9 minutes or 2 hours, 11 minutes? To me, the structure of a movie is like a clock or a prized watch — it’s about precision and perfect balance.

We always knew that we wanted to have a U.S. version that was a bit tighter and that helped clarify the complex historical context of this particular era in Chinese history, focusing further on the journeys of Ip Man and Gong Er. While the previous version was more chronological, adding narration and captions to explain certain plot points gave us the freedom to bring more life to moments in the characters’ stories. I also aimed to enhance the audience’s understanding of the challenges faced between North and South, especially during the Japanese invasion.

Well, the narration and explanatory title cards are at times useful, but at others feel heavy-handed. I guess that’s the result of them being added retroactively as an explanatory device — if Wong had felt that information needed to be in the film throughout production, I’m sure it could’ve been better integrated into the storytelling.

However you look at it, the other Ip Man films are undoubtedly more palatable to a mainstream audience. Does that mean they’re worse? No. Better? Not necessarily. But I don’t think The Grandmaster is all it could’ve been. It seems to run out of story and lose its way as it gets towards the end. The focus shifts entirely to Gong Er, and it feels less clear what it’s meant to about as a whole film. It becomes a movie of great moments, and maybe even scenes, but an unsatisfying whole. But oh, the images…

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.