Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (Yip Man ngoi zyun: Cheung Tin Chi)

Hong Kong/China (2018) Dir. Yuen Woo-Ping

Q: When is an Ip Man film not an Ip Man film?

A: When Ip Man isn’t in it!

Don’t worry though, this is a spin-off from the Ip Man film trilogy starring Donnie Yen, which luckily can stand on its own merits.

Set shortly after the events of Ip Man 3, Cheung Tin Chi (Max Zhang) is now working at a grocery store in Hong Kong having given up teaching Wing Chun following his defeat at the hands of Ip Man. With his young son Fung (Henry Zhang), Tin Chi wants to live a quiet life, but this proves difficult when he incurs the ire of local gangster Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng).

Opium addict Nana (Chrissie Chau) calls her friend Julia (Liu Yan) to bail her out of the debt she owes Sai Kit, but the scene turns nasty and a fight ensues. Tin Chi is passing by and helps the girls by beating the men single handedly. Sai Kit is enraged and vows revenge but his elder sister Tso Ngan Kwan (Michelle Yeoh) forbids it as she wants their criminal gang, Cheung Lok, to go legit. Sai Kit however refuses to listen.

Even though a fourth Ip Man film with Yen is due out this December in China, the saga continues with this stopgap which should satiate fans who are counting the days until its release. Wilson Yip may not be directing and Yen (who is also co-producer) only appears in a very brief flashback but the film is very good hands with legendary action director Yuen Woo-Ping at the helm, complete with his recognisable brand of wire-fu.

It might seem cheeky to use the Ip Man name in the title to garner some attention for this film, but the bases are covered by the direct link of Tin Chi as a key figure in Ip Man 3 and a practitioner of Wing Chun. As a character, Tin Chi is less phlegmatic than Yip Man in how he will seek revenge without hesitation whereas Yip Man would try to discuss or even ignore a problem unless fighting was the only solution.

At the start of the film, Tin Chi finishes up his sideline as mercenary to be a better father to Fung, although Fung actually wants Tin Chi to resume teaching Wing Chun, partially for bragging rights but because he idolises his father along with comic book hero the Black Bat (narrowly avoiding copyright infringement there). Stepping in to help Julia and Nana shows Tin Chi isn’t ready to give it up just yet but won’t make him change his mind either.

Sai Kit runs a profitable opium den behind his sister’s back and brazenly bribes the police whenever he is arrested, yet still sports an inferior complex for as the younger brother he feels nobody takes seriously. Openly defying Kwan’s order to stay out of trouble, Si Kit is posited as the main antagonist, his thirst for revenge against Tin Chi occupying the main bulk of the story.

The biggest strike against Tin Chi is burning his shop down with Tin Chi and Fung inside though they escape and fortunately run into Julia, who takes them home with her. Home is actually the Gold Bar, run by her brother Fu (Xing Yu), where Julia and Nana – Fu’s girlfriend – work as hostess to foreign clients. Fu is just like Tin Chi, a former martial artist looking for a quieter life but the feud with Sai Kit drags him back into it.

Just as the Sai Kit feud is picking up pace, a supplementary subplot is introduced to give Tin Chi another foe – American restaurant owner Owen Davidson (Dave Bautista) who doubles up as a drugs smuggler. Owen provides not just a physical threat but a political one as the script heavily pushes the fact Hong Kong was under British rule therefore the Chinese people should do as their told.

Frankly, whilst this is historically accurate, there really is no need to play the nationalism card to make Owen a nastier villain than he already is – his polite, philanthropic façade slipping to reveal a ruthless operator was sufficient. However, this has become a staple in Chinese cinema, and was a focal point of the first Ip Man film (set during the Japanese occupation of China), so I guess we’re stuck with it.

But, as we are well aware, storylines are mostly functional conduits for the fights and we are well catered for here, with everyone having a go. Max Zhang is great as the ice cool fighter capable of defeating dozens of men without breaking a sweat, and rarely needs weapons either. The only time he does is in a fantastic showdown against a sword wielding Michelle Yeoh who is still moves with grace and vigour at 57!

Yuen Woo-Ping presents a number of hard hitting and inventive scraps, from singles combat to multi-man punch ups, though his overuse of wire work tend to take us out of the moment like in the impressive street sign fight. Even Tony Jaa in a cameo as a black clad assassin isn’t immune from the wires, which is ironic giving his claim to fame is eschewing them in the first place.

Plenty of pulchritude is present courtesy of glam singer Liu Yan (whose miming during a  musical number is oddly atrocious) and starlet Chrissie Chau as well as Michelle Yeoh’s mature chic, yet these women are no wallflowers. Dave Bautista follows in the footsteps of Richard Norton, Nathan Jones, and Mike Tyson as the foreign giant, trying his best to act with panache, let down by his tacky moustache, but at least his old wrestling moves come in handy.  

With few exceptions, one knows what to expect from martial arts films therefore the big surprise about Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is how good it actually is. The paradigm hasn’t shifted but there is more than enough to enjoy here.