Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Grandmaster Returns: Ip Man 3

Donnie Yen as Ip Man in Ip Man 3

Martial arts films – at least those given wide Western releases – are generally pretty formulaic. The hero will more often than not be a representation of a figure from Asian history, like Wong Fei Hung (a real-life master of kung fu who has been played by almost all of martial arts cinema’s greats). The narrative will often be pared down to its barest elements, acting simply as a framework in which spectacular action can occur. There’s always a martial arts school, a master, a young upstart, a rival teacher, and a gaggle of gormless disciples. It’s not accurate to say that if you’ve seen one kung fu film, you’ve seen them all, but it’s fair to say that if you’ve seen one of Donnie Yen’s Ip Man films, you’ll know what you’re in for with the third installment.

In my opinion, this is all good: a film depicting the life of a real person (in this case, the titular Ip Man, grandmaster of the Wing Chun style) is not really an appropriate place to exercise flamboyant artistic license, and what’s more, sticking to the formula allows Ip Man 3, which covers the latter part of Ip Man’s career after his rise to fame in the first two films, to play with the genre’s established tropes in subtle and satisfying ways. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but like the grandmaster himself, the film is content with humbly perfecting the form.

It’s 1959 and Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is an established kung fu master in Hong Kong, teaching his signature Wing Chun style. He gets tangled up in some nasty Triad business when they threaten the school his son attends, and while he’s busy protecting kidnapped children and laying the smack down on gangsters, his wife Cheung Wing-Sing (Lynn Hung) is diagnosed with cancer. At the centre of all this is an unintentional rivalry that develops between Ip and Cheung Tin-Chi (Zhang Jin), another Wing Chun practitioner, who believes his kung fu is more pure than the distracted Ip. This is all standard stuff, and apart from the cancer subplot, seems almost perfunctory in a film of this type. It’s so standard as to become boringly predictable. This isn’t a real problem, however, for two reasons: first, the paint-by-numbers plot is really just an excuse to let Yen and director Wilson Yip go crazy in the action scenes, which they do with gusto, and second, that cancer subplot adds a layer of emotional complexity to the story that I was utterly unprepared for.

There’s a sequence in Ip Man 3 that feels a lot like Rocky 3, when Rocky was so successful that he’d grown soft, and we see a montage of Balboa glad-handing and signing autographs intercut with the younger, hungrier Clubber Lang (Mr. T) ferociously training in dingy, lonely tenements. There’s a wonderful tension in that montage when we’re made to feel like Rocky is wasting time when he should be training, and has forgotten what’s important. Ip Man 3 has a similar montage, with a crucial difference: Ip spends so much time defending the school and chasing Triad goons that he neglects his ailing wife; but when he learns of her diagnosis, he abandons everything else and spends every waking moment with her, taking her on trips, going to the movies, sharing jokes, and dancing. This is intercut with scenes of Tin-Chi, the rival upstart, fighting his way to the top of the city’s Wing Chun scene, as hungry and determined as Clubber Lang. Ip, though, is no Rocky: he isolates what’s important and zeroes in on it with zen focus. He’s almost happy to let his reputation slide and let Tin-Chi take his place, if it means he can be with his wife when she needs him most. He’s not wasting time, he’s treasuring it. I was not expecting such pathos from the film, and it’s executed – especially by Hung as Ip’s wife – with careful delicacy. To me, this subplot more than makes up for the otherwise boilerplate story, and even connects with the requisite action in a meaningful way.

Lynn Hung, Donnie Yen and muay thai fighter Sarut Khanwilai in Ip Man 3.

Speaking of which, Ip Man 3 handily outdoes its predecessors in terms of impressive martial arts action. Sammo Hung, Hong Kong cinema legend and choreographer for the first two Ip Man films, is replaced here by the equally legendary Yuen Woo-Ping (he of Crouching Tiger, The Matrix, and Kill Bill fame, among many, many others). Working with Yip and cinematographer Kenny Tse, Yuen creates action setpieces that rival anything Donnie Yen has done in terms of simplicity, beauty, and craft, whether it’s a fight inside the belly of a half-built ship or a face-off with the gangsters on the steps of the school. Yuen emphasizes the fluid grace and blistering speed of the Wing Chun style, differentiating it by the calm confidence of Yen’s movements from other forms of kung fu a viewer might recognize in similar films. Wing Chun is a marvelously cinematic fighting style thanks to its economy of movement; punches, blocks, and kicks are executed with minimal effort and maximum efficiency, which – in the hands of a skilled choreographer and DP – can create fascinating visual power struggles, where an opponent’s skill can be plainly measured by how well they match Yen’s unassuming, uncomplicated mastery of the form. My favourite sequence had Ip and his wife attacked by a Thai assassin inside an elevator, where Ip brings the fight out into the hallway, presses the button so his wife can descend, and promptly fights the muay thai thug down several flights of stairs, reaching the ground floor before she does and extending a hand to help her out once the doors open. It’s a wonderfully shot sequence that executes on a clever idea, delivering exciting action with an extra emotional punch – everything that masterful martial arts cinema should do.

Mention must be made, too, of Yen’s bout with Mike Tyson, who appears as an American property tycoon named Frank. Casting Tyson in any film is a dangerous proposition, as his presence immediately shatters any suspension of disbelief you might have had as soon as you see his face tattoo and hear his signature squeaky lisp – but casting him as an eccentric foreigner encroaching on Chinese land effectively smooths this wrinkle out. His fight with Ip, timed with an alarm clock (“If you last three minutes against me, I’ll leave you alone”) is brilliantly done, showing the normally unflappable Ip cowering under Frank’s freight train blows, and being forced to find creative ways to overcome his nearly-invincible opponent. Ip Man 3 represents Tyson’s debut appearance as a fighter in a martial arts film, and it’s thrilling (and occasionally terrifying) to once more see him do what he’s famous for. His isn’t the only “celebrity” appearance in the film, either – Danny Chan appears near the beginning as a young Bruce Lee, who implores Ip to take him on as a student. This is probably the interaction that most Ip Man fans came to see, since the real-life relationship between the two is what gave birth to one of cinema’s all-time martial arts legends, but I was content with a short scene that paid homage to Lee while still keeping the focus on Ip (Lee reappears later to teach Ip how to dance, so it all comes full circle).

Donnie Yen has never been my favourite martial arts star – Jackie Chan undoubtedly tops that list – but in his third run as Ip Man he finally managed to make me care about the character, in addition to impressing with his fighting prowess. If Yen’s public statements are to be believed, this may be his last action blockbuster, so it was bittersweet for me to finally connect with the franchise only to have it end in the same moment. Knowledge of the previous films is not necessary to enjoy this third installment, and I would recommend it over them anyway. Fans of martial arts cinema will get exactly what they want, whether it’s bone-crunching action with variety and flair, visually-exciting setpieces, or celebrity appearances – and those craving an interesting story may be pleasantly surprised as well. Ip Man 3 isn’t likely to win any awards or even be broadly remembered in the martial arts canon, but it resonated strongly with me, so it has at least one person who will keep it faithfully on the rotation.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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