Fans of old-school kung fu will eat up the rock-solid, joint-snapping fights in “Ip Man 3,” the long-awaited reunion of Hong Kong helmer Wilson Yip and action juggernaut Donnie Yen, here prolonging the saga of the Wing Chun grandmaster who famously taught Bruce Lee. Less offensively nationalistic than the second installment but falling short of the glowing humanity, genial Cantonese humor and visual flair of the first, the pic is somewhat tarnished by its pedestrian plot and limp characterization. It has presold to many territories and garnered respectable box office of more than $7.6 million in Hong Kong, while receiving considerable attention in the U.S. press for an Asian film. However, the delay of a planned China release (with 3D conversion) from New Year’s Eve to March may deal a serious blow to its overall tally.
Since “Ip Man”s release in 2009, a sequel helmed by Yip and four other related biopics have appeared, including Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster” and novelist-auteur Xu Haofeng’s “The Master,” an apocryphal yarn about the hero’s mentor Chan Wah-shun. Although none have secured the permission of Bruce Lee’s trust to incorporate him (or in this production’s case, his hologram) in a substantial way, “Ip Man 3” comes close to capturing his charisma in two playful scenes.
Notwithstanding the legendary star’s absence, this body of work has morphed into a homage to the heyday of Hong Kong chopsocky cinema, reaching back to the influences of Lau Ka-leung’s hardcore style and Lee’s classics (the stunt casting of Mike Tyson here recalls Kareen Abdul-Jabbar turn in “The Game of Death”). With Yen counting this as his last full-blown action performance, it’s also a swan song of sorts.
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The original dramatized the protag’s early life of landed gentry and anti-Japanese resistance in Foshan, Guangzhou; the sequel followed his family’s migration to Hong Kong, where he began his teaching career and dusted up British colonialists. The third outing devotes more time to Ip’s relationship with his now ailing wife, Wing-sing (Lynn Hung). Although he strikes a heavy-hearted note, Yip details their reserved affection with a tenderly non-verbal touch by having them communicate through leftover food and notes jotted on bits of paper.
Although Yen continues to refine his gentlemanly persona with a mellow, dry sense of humor, the yarn provides no indication of his evolving mastery of Wing Chun, or the methods of teaching that eventually made the school one of the most practiced worldwide. In “Ip Man 2,” at least there was a subplot related to disciple Wong Leung (Huang Xiaoming), while here there’s no interaction with any but one of his faceless students.
Picking up nine years after the previous film, “Ip Man 3” opens in 1959 — a prosperous era for Hong Kong as its manufacturing and shipping industries take off. Ip Man, Wing-sing and their youngest son, Ching (Li Xiaolong), are living in relative comfort, although almost nothing is said about how they fared in the interim. Ching gets into a scrap with classmate Fong (Cui Can), which leads to an acquaintance with Fong’s father, Cheung Tin-chi (Max Zhang, aka Zhang Jin), a rickshaw man who turns out to be his Wing Chun alumni.
American property boss and all-around-evil-foreigner Frank (Tyson) employs local mobster Brother Sang (Patrick Tam, hammily despicable) to seize Ching and Fong’s school for redevelopment. Ip and his pupils set up a patrol squad to guard the school against vandalism. However, the devious Sang finds ways to ambush them. This leads to two pandemoniac action set pieces in a shipyard that fondly recall the ice factory rough-and-tumbles in Bruce Lee’s action debut, “The Big Boss.”
At each critical moment, Cheung, who competes at Frank’s underground boxing club, ends up reluctantly fighting on Ip’s side, yet his ambitions makes him increasingly restive. Despite playing second fiddle as he did in “SPL 2: A Time for Consequences,” Zhang gives his role class just by flexing his knuckles with characteristic coolness. His aggressive fighting style acting as a foil to Yen’s measured responses, Zhang has a remarkable ability to invigorate a scene, turning every brief appearance into a tantalizing buildup to the spectacular final showdown.
Yet, for an opponent worthy of the grandmaster in stature and martial prowess, Edmond Wong’s screenplay is inexcusably skimpy on Cheung’s personal history or motives. His behavior seesaws between decent and self-serving, yet there’s no moral or psychological complexity underlying that ambivalence. For someone with such a superior aura, it’s unconvincing that he would try to oust Ip for reasons as banal as money or jealousy.
Interestingly, Zhang not only played Ip’s adversary of sorts in “The Grandmaster”; like Yen, he was mentored by the film’s action director, Yuen Woo-ping, who gave him bit parts to start off his acting career, making the actors real-life alumni. While Cheung claims to belong to the same branch of Wing Chun as Ip under Chan Wah-shun, nothing is said about where he came from and how he got his training. This kind of backstory is vital for a genre in which lineage is everything. It’s especially frustrating that after Cheung pours scorn on Ip’s “phony” Wing Chun style, the story never explains what’s considered the real deal.
Yuen’s action choreography adheres to the old-school traditions gracefully rendered by Sammo Hung in the first two films, with the emphasis on authentic kicks and punches, sans wire stunts, and with CGI kept to a minimum. Whereas Hung worked wonders with homey props — a duster, a bamboo pole or a wobbly dining table — in keeping with Ip’s gentle nature, Woo’s preference for massive crowd brawls often buries the protags’ skilled moves in noisy, formless melee. Not surprisingly, the most thrilling free sparring takes place in an elevator and a cluttered umbrella shop, as the simplicity, directness and pliancy of Wing Chun are most potent deployed in narrow spaces.
The anticipated square-off with Frank thankfully delivers through cartoonish disparity in physicality, with his burly frame and raging bull might pitted against Ip’s lean build and grasshopper agility. The match nails the fine points of Eastern-vs.-Western techniques within three minutes.
Quality tech credits by the predominantly Hong Kong crew help cover up some of the film’s narrative inadequacies. Extra kudos to Cheung Ka-fai, editor of the two earlier episodes, for setting a subtly balanced rhythm to so many loose and tonally incompatible scenes; ditto Kenji Kawai’s score, which moves from somber to rousing without bombast, in tandem with Kinson Tsang’s orotund sound mix. D.p. Tse Chung-to highlights the action with steady camerawork and occasional high-angle flourishes. Mak Kwok-keung’s lavishly retro production design doesn’t show how Hong Kong was in the ’60s, but how it looked in the movies of that era.