After subjecting mysef to a string of questionable Hong Kong blockbusters including “SPL 2: A Time For Consequences”–a film that casts the original’s knife wielding villain Wu Jing in a heroic role alongside Tony Jaa–and “Kung Fu Jungle” (or “Kung Fu Killer” depending on where you live and / or how dumb you like your titles), I’m happy to report that “Ip Man 3” puts the country and the legacy of star Donnie Yen back on track. I’m not certain that the film is overly concerned with realism as much as in celebrating the iconography of Wing Chun Grandmaster, Ip Man. The films are so interested in Ip Man that they use the fact that he trained Bruce Lee as a selling point to get butts in seats then do very little with it.
The audience is introduced to young Bruce Lee in the opening moments of the film as he thumbs the side of his nose in that trademark way and tries to talk himself into Ip Man’s tutelage. He yells in that way that has become parody, he kicks a slew of individual cigarettes to pieces, and, finally, he kicks through water. Ip Man can’t help but take the piss out of him for that one. The camera loves every moment of this. The sequence is presented with great flair and a real enthusiasm for 3D. It’s also just about the most they give you of Bruce Lee since he has his own damn legacy, but the guy playing him does a solid job of articulating the cocksuredness that comes with being that good.
The films are more concerned with Ip Man’s unflappable decency, the pride that makes him an allegory for his neighborhood, nation, and the good guys of the entire world. There is also a greater sense, especially in the latter half of this film, of the man his wife loved underneath all of that. In fact, the film might just be a stronger portrait of a flawed, saintly, doting husband than a martial arts film.
We see Ip Man telling corny jokes with his wife Cheung Wing-Sing, and looking suitably henpecked when he changes a light bulb and she shows no gratitude (to be fair, he looks pleased enough for the both of them). He may be a hero, but he’s just a guy, right? She, on the other hand, seems exhausted when he spends nights with his students guarding the local school from gangsters who want the property for themselves. It goes on long enough that eventually the two of them only communicate via letters. She gets tired of sharing her husband with the locals because he cares so much, but he’s terrible at turning off that eagerness to please.
Meanwhile, from a performance standpoint, Yen wears a stoic expression that means very different things at home and in public. In public, people are drawn to him because it means confidence, in private you can see a subtle shift in his eyes that he knows when his wife has his number.
Contrasts like this reside at the heart of the movie.
In an early portion of the film we meet Cheung Tin-Chi (Jin Zhang, a paradox of danger and decency), a rickshaw puller who befriends Ip Man after their sons get into a fight. Both are practitioners of Wing Chun although Cheung’s is traditional while Ip’s is modified. The contrasts further extend to wealth, marital status, and how much each man desires fame. Zhang does fine work underplaying his envy as stoicism, but embraces that envy when he realizes that life isn’t going to give him any of the privileges that Ip Man enjoys. Still he’s more complicated than that, inherently decent but a slave to his need to be famous. It should be noted that the children remain friends even as their fathers begin to work at cross purposes.
For all the ways that the film works as a study in contrasts, it works just as well in complementary respects. The fight choreography steps away from the more fanciful, wire fu work of part two’s Sammo Hung and takes a more grounded approach courtesy of Yuen Wo Ping. This change makes the action a better tonal match to the slowly emerging love story.
From a storytelling standpoint, the fights also emphasize that Cheung and Ip Man are often battling the same thing–thugs at the school, thugs who abducted children–but with different aims: Ip does the right thing without thinking how much more fame / trouble it brings him (and his long-suffering wife) while Cheung wants that baggage. It dovetails nicely with the last point to be made: Wing-Sing encourages Ip Man to go and have the public duel he’d been putting off for so long. She misses the sound of him practicing at night, but also realizes he’s at his best when she’s not hoarding him to herself.
The love story is tender and effective, the fight sequences are solidly constructed (my favorites are the attack on the school and child rescue sequence and the elevator staircase fight), and the subtle / commanding presence of Donnie Yen, it’s safe to say that “Ip Man 3” is pretty close to being in the business of miracles.