The Ip Man film scene has become a crowded sub-genre over the last decade and a bit. Although the four numbered titles directed by Wilson Yip and starring Donnie Yen are the most well-known, there are also the alternate takes on the historical figure in Ip Man: The Legend is Born, Ip Man: Kung Fu Master and Ip Man: The Final Fight plus Wong Kar Wai’s spin on the legend in The Grandmaster. There’s also a 2013 TV series. Across all this footage, quite a few actors appear multiple times as different characters. Here to add to the confusion, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is a spin-off from the Donnie Yen films, switching the spotlight to rival wing chun master Cheung Tin-chi (Zhang Jin) from Ip Man 3. Yuen Woo Ping also graduates from action director on that film to director this time round.
In the world of Master Z, Ip Man is out there somewhere, but is only referred to in passing — and glimpsed in occasional flashbacks. The mainline Ip Man films played pretty loose with historical accuracy, but being even further removed from real-world figures gives this film’s story even more freedom, which makes it more exciting. There’s no guarantee that Tin-chi will triumph as Ip Man almost inevitably did. Tin-chi is also a more everyday sort of character than the esteemed master. Ip Man was polite and refined, even when smoking. Tin-chi will knock a bottle cap off a tallie on the edge of a concrete wall. Zhang Jin is a handsome fella, even sporting a mullet as he does here, and capable of playing characters all over the moral spectrum. He really shines as the conflicted, but good-hearted and honourable Tin-chi.
Master Z is centred on a small area of Hong Kong, dominated by an entertainment district called Bar Street. There’s a similar feeling to Iron Monkey, another Yuen Woo Ping directorial effort, being contained in a small area and largely filmed on very nice-looking sets. The entry into swinging hotspot Gold Bar on a busy night shows off the opulence with a low-key single camera shot following a series of vignettes through the main lounge. It’s an odd contrast when the streets of this densely-packed area are sometimes deserted, making them seem like empty sets.
Cheung Tin-chi runs a grocery store in this area of Hong Kong, having stepped away from teaching and practicing wing chun, much to the disappointment of his son Fung (Henry Zhang), who idolises his father on the same level as comic book character the Black Bat. The first wing chun pose of the film is actually struck by Fung as he stands up to a bully who steals his comic. Although not without conflict, it’s a warm father-son relationship that gives the film a lot of heart. Tin-chi is caught up in the criminal underbelly of Bar Street when a brawl spills out of an alley and damages the present he has just bought for his son.
Sisters Nana (Chrissie Chau) and Julia (Liu Yan) are being attacked by gangsters demanding money to cover a debt. This crew is led by Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng) an unruly member of a larger organisation headed by his older sister Tso Ngan Kwan (Michelle Yeoh). It’s quite a web of connections and competing interests Tin-chi gets sucked into that brings in a lot of interesting players.
It’s a very impressive cast, bolstered by the strong addition of Dave Bautista as businessman Owen Davidson. Perhaps because of his international fame from working on The Matrix series, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Kill Bill films, Yuen Woo Ping seems to have the clout to get well known international actors in his films. David Carradine appeared in True Legend, and having someone of the calibre of Dave Bautista as the main westerner in Master Z is a big step above what Hong Kong martial arts films usually manage. He’s charismatic but softly spoken, and his role becomes more important as the film progresses. Having Michelle Yeoh as another fluent English speaker is a great help also in this cosmopolitan setting and seeing her and Bautista on screen together is a wonderful moment, even if they only share a microphone.
With all the characters running around, the film is remarkably well balanced. It’s never overwhelming and who’s doing what and why is almost always clear. When blows start being thrown, it’s typical high quality Yuen Woo Ping style action, with actual choreography credited to Yuen Shun Yi. It’s fast and environmental damage is in shattering effect. Exaggerated physics have always been present in the Ip Man series, particularly the second entry, but are taken to new heights in Master Z.
Great action moments abound, such as a brief fight on a rooftop where the loser gets the money and a really cool routine that could be from a classic kung fu flick when a glass of liquor is batted gracefully back and forth without spilling a drop. Because of the drama and complex character incentives in play, it’s exciting to see which way conflicts will break and who’s going to face off. The best action scene has a fraught situation cascade into multiple fights around a single location and ends in what could be termed a three-and-a-half-way standoff. As the film draws to a conclusion the story and battles become more straightforward, but the action remains strong.
All is not perfect though. Julia is shown to be more than capable of holding her own in her introductory scene, but never gets to fight again. Liu Yan is not an experienced action actress and it probably took more work to cover for this in the choreography, but it still looks great and it feels weird when Julia is in situations where she could take action again and yet she never does. Once Tin-chi is on the scene he basically takes over. Tony Jaa has a cameo — as an enforcer for a shady character played by Yuen Wah in an even smaller cameo — and a solid one-on-one rematch with Zhang Jin after the two fought in SPL II: A Time for Consequences, but the reason for their fight is not clear, making it the one exception in the film. Having these two in the movie without a showdown would feel like a waste, so it just kind of happens for the sake of it. The fight is redeemed dramatically by slipping a deft bit of martial arts story-telling into the choreography.
A few other elements let the film down a little. Rock music crashes the party for a few of the action scenes and feels quite out of place. The way drug addiction and carousing are used in the story is predictable, but still sucks to watch play out yet again, whether true to life or not. Ultimately though Master Z is a very enjoyable, more light-hearted story set in the Ip Man universe, free from the burden of having to stand up for the honour of all Chinese.
One great musical touch is the incorporation of the rousing theme from the numbered Ip Man films. It’s used with restraint in Master Z, and in context becomes more of a broader “wing chun theme”. The same musical style is expanded upon in the final scene, a fitting accompaniment to a demonstration of forms that often opened classic kung fu films. Wing chun is not only about Ip Man and Master Z: Ip Man Legacy successfully widens the appeal.