Ip Man 4: The Finale (Yip Man 4)
Hong Kong (2019) Dir. Wilson Yip
Remember the horror film Final Destination which, despite the definitive adjective in the title, spawned four sequels, meaning we can’t trust cinema when it declares we have reached the end of a series. Is this the same for the Ip Man saga?
Continuing the fictionalised account of the legendary martial artist grandmaster’s life, we join Ip Man (Donnie Yen) in 1964. Now a widower and diagnosed with cancer, his rebellious teenage son Ip Ching (Jim Liu) has been expelled from school. Having learned from former pupil Bruce Lee (Danny Kwok-Kwan Chan) is in the US, Ip visits him in San Francisco whilst looking into Ching being educated in the US instead.
However, to get Ching into a US school Ip needs a referral letter from the head of the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) Wan Zong-hua (Wu Yue), but his meeting doesn’t go well, when Ip refuses to reprimand Bruce for teaching kung fu to Americans, leading Wan to challenge Ip to fight. Meanwhile, a student of Bruce’s, US marine Hartman Wu (Vanness Wu) wants to introduce Chinese kung fu to the combat programme but his superiors think it is a weak against karate and set out to prove it.
There is no question Ip Man is one of the most influential figures in Chinese martial arts history and across the globe thanks to his association with Bruce Lee, so a cinematic bio-pic was always inevitable. Whether it was a story that could have been condensed into a single film would depend on how one chose to portray Ip Man – as a martial artist or the man behind the kung fu legend.
Since 2008, Wilson Yip has tried both paths, highlighting key periods from Ip Man’s life beginning with his rise to prominence after standing up to the Japanese (Ip Man), through fighting off American boxers (Ip Man 2) and finally Chinese Triad gangs (Ip Man 3). In between the fighting, we see IP’s struggles as husband and father as he balances his desire to teach kung fu yet live a happy family life.
Now with Ip Man 4, our subject is 71 years-old (but doesn’t look it or even mentioned to be that old) but is still as skilled and fast as ever. Retirement clearly isn’t an option in the martial arts world, not while they are people to teach, and it wouldn’t be much of a film to show an aged Ip shouting orders, so things are spiced up a bit with a plot that is essentially a greatest hits of the previous films.
At first, it is teased that we might see Ip pass the torch to Bruce Lee as the film opens with a re-enactment of the famous exhibition from 1964 where Bruce demonstrated the one-inch punch. The American members of a karate dojo watching decide this was a set up and challenge Bruce to prove their karate is superior (erm…whose karate?) outside a diner. You can guess how that went for them.
Which gives us our theme for this film – America’s bigotry against the Chinese. Bearing in mind this film was made last year and only recently released here in the UK, watching it today is rather poignant. Not to mention China vs. America has already been done in IP Man, the script goes into overdrive to establish the white men as racist bullies and the Chinese as the oppressed minority at every turn.
Besides Hartman facing the sneery dismissal of kung fu by belligerent karate instructor Colin (Chris Collins) and racist sergeant Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins), a concurrent subplot is introduced involving Wan’s daughter Yonah Wan (Vanda Margraf). Not only is she under pressure from her strict father to learn Tai Chi kung fu, she is also bullied at school by a jealous blonde cheerleader Becky (Grace Englert).
Ip Man happens to be at the school and intervenes when Becky and some boys attack Yonah and cut her hair. During the struggle, Becky’s face is slashed by the scissors but she of course claims it was a deliberate attack by Yonah and has her father (Andrew Lane) use his position as an immigration officer to dole out her revenge. Later than night Wan is arrested and the CBA get an unexpected visit from the INS.
Of course, there is only one way for this to end – with Ip Man getting to have his last hurrah against Geddes in a brutal showdown after everyone else has fallen to the American brute. Luckily, all the fights are routinely great so the overbearing nationalistic rhetoric can be tolerated a little more easily. Yuen Woo-Ping is choreographer and keeps things tight and frantic, with more emphasis on close combat with scant use of wires, adding extra authenticity to each blow struck.
Donnie Yen maybe be 56 but this doesn’t show in his fighting, still blessed with speed, grace and precision, whilst his age now gives the quiet dignity in which Ip Man conducts himself a genuine touch of gravitas at this late stage in Ip Man’s life. Wu Yue as Wan is a great foil for Yen, whilst 16 year-old Vanda Margraf as Yonah makes an impressive debut. The only complaint outside the gurning foreign cast is Danny Kwok-Kwan Chan resembles Louis Koo more than Bruce Lee but he moves well in his fights.
As the end credits reports Ip Man’s death in 1972 aged 79, it would appear that Ip Man 4: The Finale does indeed live up to its title, at least with Donnie Yen in the role. As there are other unconnected Ip Man films and even a Legacy spin-off from this series, his presence on screen may not be over just yet.
Even with the clumsy politics of the storytelling, this is still a fun and action packed way to bring this particular collection of films to a close and let Donnie Yen’s portrayal of the revered Wing Chun inventor bow out on a (relative) high.