The opening weekend of NYAFF is heavy on the fu, with a double helping of two very different films about Bruce Lee’s master, Ip Man - Ip Man: The Final Fight and The Legend is Born: Ip Man - along with special screenings modern classics Enter the Dragon and Arahan. Director Herman Yau and screenwriter Erica Li will attend the former, while actor Ryoo Seung-beom and DJs Fab 5 Freddy and MC Yan will hold down the latter.
The Legend is Born: Ip Man
The recent Ip Man craze (Ip Mania?) spearheaded by Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip (see our reviews of Donnie Yen’s Ip Man 1 and 2 here and our interview with Sammo Hung here) has led to a number of intriguing side projects and diversions, including two films by Herman Yau that essentially serve as bookends to Donnie Yen’s action-packed saga.
In The Legend is Born: Ip Man, Yau goes the prequel route with a tale of the young Ip Man before he established himself a respected master in his home province of Foshan. The film starts in 1905 when Ip Man and his adopted brother Tin Chi are left with Wing Chun masters played by new wave kung fu kings Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, before moving into their teenage years. A love triangle quickly forms between Ip Man (played by talented Donnie Yen look-alike Dennis To), Tin Chi (played by the always great Fan Siu-Wong of Story of Ricky fame) and their fellow pupil and we get to see how Ip Man developed his famous technique.
The set-up is pretty straightforward – while the initial focus is on interpersonal relationships and Ip’s development, the film eventually segues into a fairly desultory plotline about an evil rival Japanese school complete with plot beats lifted directly from Fist of Fury and Fist of Legend.
Aside from the fun of seeing a now geriatric but still tough Ip Chun (the real Ip Man’s son) spar with To, there is not a lot of original material to the story, but the incidental pleasures compensate. I am always happy to see Hung and Yuen Biao on screen and their chemistry has not abated over the years – though Hung’s role amounts to little more than a cameo, we do get to see a blindfolded match between him and Yuen Biao in one of the high points of the film. Dennis To also has chops and we get a number of great scenes of him absolutely destroying people with a blindingly fast series of close range attacks in the classic Wing Chun style. Fan too gets to shine, and his fights with To are all excellent.
Ip Man: The Final Fight
Final Fight is also by Herman Yau, but goes in a very different direction than Legend is Born and from the preceding Donnie Yen films. Yau makes an interesting and evocative choice by casting Anthony Wong (an actor with whom he has a long association) as Ip Man. Wong is a tremendously talented actor who has shown impressive range in films like Untold Story and Infernal Affairs, but by no means a martial artist. The casting of Wong is in some ways the precise opposite of what the bigger budget Ip Man films did by casting Donnie Yen, an excellent martial artist who is usually somewhat deficient in the charisma column.
Set during roughly the same period covered in Ip Man 2 – when Ip moved to Hong Kong to begin teaching following the end of World War 2, Final Fight is a much more personal film. Ip Man 1 had Donnie Yen fighting an enormous Japanese general and Ip Man 2 did likewise with a malevolent British boxer. Final Fight has Anthony Wong struggling with the cold nights, questionable cuisine and amorous showgirls of Hong Kong in the 1950s, while focusing on the lives of his students amongst labor unrest and police corruption.
Final Fight does a decent job portraying Anthony Wong as a fighter, though it sets him up against other non-martial artists (a challenge between Wong and Eric Tsang is amusing for the novelty value – kind of the equivalent of watching Ben Kingsley and Gene Hackman throw down in a kung fu match). The film also makes sure to allow others to get in on the action – Ip Man’s students carry a lot of the weight in brawls and there is a fun lion dance sequence, if nowhere near on the level of Dreadnaught’s masterpiece. The movie does eventually scrape up some generic baddies for Ip Man to face, but its heart is more in the relationships than in the arena.
CSB’s 2005 review of Arahan can be found here. As for Enter the Dragon, what more can I add? It may not have the best kung fu matches, but Bruce Lee oozes charisma and the incidental music, clothes and craziness are outta sight. Catch all the neck-snapping action on the big screen.
© David Austin
Filed under: General and Movie Reviews: Hong Kong and Movie Reviews and People: Ryoo Seung-wan and People: Bruce Lee and Venues: Film Society at Lincoln Center and Film Festivals: New York Asian Film Festival 2013 and Film Festivals: Japan Cuts 2013 and People: Herman Yau and People: Anthony Wong