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Ip Man 4: Kung-Fu Goes West

Ip Man 4: The Finale” walks the Wing Chun grandmaster into the sunset and KARL R. DE MESA gives his take on the journey.

T he Wing Chun Grandmaster Ip Man has seen better days.

Diagnosed with terminal cancer, he is one day struck by the supreme irony that he may have survived the Japanese invasion of China, endured the injustice of colonial Hong Kong, and managed to uphold Chinese dignity through martial arts by defending it from fighters of foreign styles like Muay Thai and Western boxing, but it would be his years of smoking that would write his final lesson.

“Ip Man 1” through “Ip Man 3” has seen Donnie Yen as the iconic kung-fu master build up a distinctly meditative style of Hong Kong action movie. Amazing set pieces that are gorgeously lit and finely choreographed through wirework define the Ip Man series. While this fourth installment sets Ip Man up in the frame of enduring legacy, its stakes are no different (and maybe even a little lower) than the previous ones.     

Picking up where the previous movie left off, we’re shown that the famed grandmaster’s wife passed away and the growing distance between him and his son, Ip Ching (who sees his father as someone who isn’t just stubborn, but also refuses to acknowledge anything that he is passionate about.)

Despite this breakdown in familial communication and Ip Ching’s very normal teenage rebellion, Ip Man wants to give his kid a better future than the limited ones HK has to offer. The perfect chance comes when Ip Man receives an invitation from Bruce Lee (Chan Kwok Kwan Danny,) his famed protégé. Lee has now made a name for himself in the martial circles of San Francisco and he sends a plane ticket plus an invite to attend an International Karate Championship where Lee will be sparring other martial artists in a live demo.

At first, Ip Man is reluctant. But he soon senses a great opportunity to not just look for a school for his son, but also to see what kind of progress Lee has made in spreading the gospel of Wing Chun. It is thus that in 1964, Ip Man arrives in America.

At a runtime of 105 minutes, fans of this franchise are given exactly what they want with Ip Man going up against (in no distinct order) an American karate fighter, a fellow kung fu master, and a pneumatically jacked US Marine in the rousing final battle. As fists fly, we are treated to scenes and lessons on Western racism, how the early Chinese of America faced the life of Asian immigrants abroad. How would Ip Man challenge the bullying of western society by carrying forward the values of Chinese martial arts?

Moving the stage away from Asia to America puts Ip Man out of his comfort zone. While back in HK he may be famous, respected, and hailed as a hero, in San Francisco he is a nobody, and not even the big shots of China Town want to sign a letter of recommendation because his student Bruce Lee has been teaching foreigners their secret arts. A big no-no for kung fu masters. 

While tackling the racism and xenophobia against Asian immigrants with his legendary fists is quite a task even for Ip Man, he does his best to accomplish his mission of not just trying to provide his kid back home with a chance to take a stab at the American Dream. All the while he’s also trying to uphold the principles he instilled in Bruce, not just by supporting his efforts at popularizing Chinese kung fu, but also defending this philosophy of generosity even from their fellow bigoted immigrants. 

In the course of this defense, there’s a great scene during the mid-winter festival in China Town, where Ip Man fights a karate master. Against the bright reds and greens of the lanterns and street decorations that depict the rich and lush visuals of the district, this fight was a sight to behold even as it ironically has veteran martial artist Chris Collins playing the enemy. That’s because Collins is himself a Wing Chun master and is likely responsible for training a lot of American practitioners.  

The portrayal of the plight of Chinese culture against American intolerance is played out in the filigree of several plot points that touch on and impede Ip Man’s mission. They vary in necessity and narrative potency, sometimes barely skimming the edge of obligation. One moment the grandmaster is beating down the bullies of a young Chinese girl at a high school playground, the next he’s demonstrating his character against another kung fu grandmaster. There’s even a largely irrelevant arc kicked off by half-Chinese US Marine Hartman Wu, a student of Bruce Lee played by Taiwanese-American Van Ness (the same guy from boy band F4), that only serves to set up the chain of events that lead to Ip Man’s climax fight. 

And in that final battle, we see Ip Man go up against the US Marine Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins,) an imperialist officer who only deems Combat Karate the fit system for the American military. Yeah, Geddes is that confusing kind of imperialist who would fawn over one Asian martial art but at the same time denigrate another by raiding their dojos and stomping their practitioners to the curb.

Still, the said final boss fight against Geddes conjures up the last movie’s climax against Mike Tyson. Except here, Geddes uses a kickboxing focused style and is way faster than Tyson ever was in Ip Man 3. There’s no secret as to how any of the fights will end and that Ip Man will prevail, but it’s still damn satisfying to see Yen kicking ass against great odds.

Even as the plot points vary in connective strength, it’s great to see 1964 invoked in detail, especially with the historical recreations of Bruce Lee demonstrating his skills at the karate tournament and in a street brawl against white karate thugs. This is a perfect setup for the next phase, which will hopefully see Lee carry on the torch of Wing Chun that Ip Man has passed on to his most popular and ardent student.   

As Donnie Yen retires the shoes that have served him for the four core movies, fighting against cultural injustice and feuding with other martial artists in Chinatown are apt enough narrative devices to set this one down for the completionist’s library. You can’t start here if you’re just getting into the franchise, but it sure is a damn good way to walk the grandmaster into the sunset.

“Ip Man4: The Finale” is showing in Metro Manila theaters on February 26 from Hiraya Global Films.

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