I missed the third film in the Wilson Yip-directed, Donnie Yen-starring Ip Man series when it was in cinemas, so I was very happy to have a chance to review the upcoming Aussie DVD/Blu-ray release (available May 4 from Eastern Eye). Yen’s portrayal of Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man as a quietly traditionalist, highly skilled master of his art has been his most popular role of the last decade or so. Aside from his transformation in the flawed but fun Monkey King film!), I think it’s probably been his best work over that period as well.
Two elements in particular were used to sell this film, and are leaned on hard in its trailers. More Bruce Lee, who we glimpsed at the end of Ip Man 2 as a cocky kid thumbing his nose and asking Ip to take him on as a student, and the casting of former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson — certainly an interesting development in the tradition of unusual kung fu movie match-ups.
But both characters are sidelines in this film; a frisson of star power used to market what is ultimately a more conventional martial arts picture.
The year is 1957, and Ip Man is well established as an exponent of Wing Chun and a leader in the larger martial arts community in Hong Kong. His eldest son, Ip Chun, has gone to study in Foshan, and Ip Man lives with his wife Cheung Wing-Sing (Lynn Hung) and his youngest son Ip Ching. Ching is caught fighting with another boy, the son of a rickshaw driver named Cheung Tin-chi (Zhang Jin), also a talented master of Wing Chun.
Our villains in this story are an organised crime ring run by Ma King-sang (a sneering Patrick Tam), who’s up to the usual nasty business: underground fighting tournaments, extortion and corruption. He and his crew are working for an unscrupulous Western property developer named Frank (Mike Tyson), who struts and scowls and barks orders in a mixture of English and Cantonese.
So, to get the obvious out of the way: it’s pretty clear that we’re well out of biopic territory in Ip Man 3, and a large part of the story is made up. Youngest son Ip Ching was born in 1936, so it’d be surprising if he was still a lad in primary school in ’57, to start with. There’s enough dramatic license on display that we should really just view this film through the same lens as the ’90s portrayals of Hung Gar master Wong Fei-hung in Tsui Hark’s classic Once Upon a Time in China series — a good old heroic kung fu flick, anchored to a few historical facts.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Unlike the 90s wire-fu suffusing the OUATIC films, the action choreography in this film (as in the previous two Ip Man films) is more grounded, with a strong focus on showing off Wing Chun itself. The previous two films were choreographed by Sammo Hung, who has a long history of using Wing Chun on screen — you can go all the way back to Warriors Two (1978) and The Prodigal Son (1982), for example. In this film, Hung is replaced by another veteran action director, Yuen Woo-ping, and Yuen does just as fine a job. Though uncredited, Donnie Yen had a significant hand in the action choreography as well, and the fight sequences feel very much of a piece with the actor’s recent work.
On the story front, Ip Man 3 is a comfortably familiar action film with some dramatic quieter moments. The plot revolves around Ip Man’s rivalry with other martial artists, his rather righteous adherence to his code of honour, and the dramatic contrast between the world of martial arts and his family life.
Despite a couple of flashy action scenes, the action titans — Bruce Lee (Danny Chan Kwok-kwan, who played the goalie in Shaolin Soccer) and Mike Tyson — are ultimately not that significant to the main arc of the story, although it’s fun to see Chan’s well-practiced Lee impression. The inevitable showdown between Yen and Tyson certainly shows off the contrast between a Wing Chun fighter and a Western boxer, perhaps even more intensely than the ring fight in the previous film, but Tyson’s Frank is under-developed and gone before you realise it.
Zhang Jin (also sometimes credited as Max Zhang) on the other hand does a great job of both the martial arts and imbuing Cheung the rival Wing Chun master with a kind of underdog intensity. He’s had a great run of late: his turn opposite Ip Man in Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster, the role of the villain in SPL II, and up against Donnie Yen in this film. I have a feeling we’ll see a great deal more of him in the future.
With Ip Man 3 (along with The Grandmaster and a bunch of other recent Ip Man releases), director Wilson Yip and writer Edmond Wong have had a pretty decent go at elevating their central character to the pantheon of Chinese folk heroes of the screen, a companion to Wong Fei-hung, Fong Sai-yuk, Huo Yuanjia and (Huo’s fictional student) Chen Zhen.
It might not be a strictly historically accurate depiction, but neither were Drunken Master or Once Upon a Time in China — and they’re all a hell of a lot of fun.