There’s definitely something special about a martial arts teacher when not one, but multiple films are made about his life and legacy. So goes the canonization of Ip Man (1893-1972), who lived and taught his powerful brand of kung fu in Hong Kong from the end of World War II until his death in the early 70’s. Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster (2013) remains my favorite of the bunch with its swooning atmosphere, ethereal editing, and magical sense of body and space.
The more populist of the bunch, though, lies in the hands of Wilson Yip and his Ip Man trilogy. As Master Ip, Donnie Yen embodies the kung fu expert with a serenity and grace that immediately aligns Master Ip as a comfortable and humanist hero to root for.
In this third installment of the trilogy, Ip Man 3 continues its linear voyage with Master Ip as his style of kung fu, known as Wing Chun, is firmly established as the most powerful form of fighting in Hong Kong in 1959. As Ip Man 2 explored, it wasn’t an easy thing for him to find acceptance among his ‘grandmaster’ echelon, however, times-they-are-a-changin’ and Master Ip’s brand of fighting has taken roots in the city and grown in stature.
Like any solid foundation, the chips and cracks begin to emerge and a succession of would be usurpers challenge the talent and honor of Ip Man once again. The first arrives in the form of genial Cheung Tin Chi (Zhang Jin), the father of a young boy who goes to school with Ip’s son. Relegated to a lower class status and desperately wanting to make a name for himself with his own martial arts school, the two – at first – are bound as allies when local thugs want to enforce their will and close down the school in an attempt for a land grab scheme.
Just when that nefarious activity is averted, Ip Man comes in contact with the business boss leading the activity, played by – yes – Mike Tyson, who dispatches an especially nasty looking Taiwanese fighter to deal with Ip Man. And, of course, one can’t put Mike Tyson in a film and not have him show off his own pugilistic gracefulness.
After all this mayhem is settled, Master Ip then has to eventually deal with troubles closer to home, including Cheung Tin Chi’s jealousies and the sadness of caring for a sick wife (Lynn Hung).
If there’s one complaint to be had with these films, it’s that all three develop a certain template and then follow it accordingly. Ip Man himself is never really in danger. The fun of the efforts is in their stylish stagings and video-game like progression of bad guys. And like a video game with the cheat coed enabled, Master Ip handles all challenges with verve and bone-crunching efficiency.
That minor quibble aside, Ip Man 3 is the best of the bunch. Filmed in seamless long takes, cinematographer Kenny Tse and action director Yuen Wo Ping allow the logistical carnage of the fight scenes to resonate clearly. Not a part of the first two films, Yuen’s contributions infuse Ip Man 3 with a vitality and clarity that are striking. Likewise, the emotional stakes are higher in this third film. Like all mortals, Ip Man and his wife are faced with sickness and heartache and the film registers their bond more affectionately than the other films. Watching the two of them share a dance lesson together – when Ip Man has been challenged to a dual across town – speaks volumes about the realization Master Ip has embraced concerning the shifting priorities in his life. It’s a tender, touching moment.
If part 1 laid the framework for his emergence into the world during the hellish days of World War II, and part 2 succumbed to the nationalist and individual struggle for acceptance post war, then part 3 has finally transformed Ip Man into the real life superhero that history (and pop culture) have always adorned him with. It’s no wonder Bruce Lee (hinted at in all three films) fought so vehemently to have Master Ip be his teacher. Legends bespeak legends and Ip Man 3 is a thrilling and kinetic conclusion to the trilogy.