In another branch of the sprawling Ip Man tree, Li Liming’s Young Ip Man (少年叶问之危机时刻, shàonián Yè Wèn zhī wēijī shíkè) aims to kickstart a new strand of streaming action drama in following the titular hero in his days as a student in Hong Kong. Li never misses an opportunity to remind us that this is all taking place in the colonial past, a large British flag flying over the prison in which the film opens. Yet perhaps surprisingly, the betrayals that Ip Man (Zhao Wenhao) faces are local and personal in which the corruption of British rule is felt only distantly and in the priggish figure of a bullying police commissioner who as it turns out is really just an unimportant middleman.
The most literal villain is, however, arch criminal Ma Long (Mu Fengbin) who is sprung from prison by his gang in the film’s high impact opening sequence. Determined to get revenge on corrupt police chief Stewart (Jonathan Kos-Read), Ma somewhat bizarrely decides to kidnap a bunch of rich kids at school for an English speech competition hoping to get his hands on Stewart’s son Jack. The funny thing is he has a connection to Ip Man’s past and later suggests he may have known that he would be involved all of which seems to be quite a flaw in his plan. In the company of his friend Ya Yun, the daughter of the head of the Axe gang, Ip Man defiantly decides to use his martial arts skills to save his fellow students while squaring off against the corrupt figure of Ma.
Then again, as we discover Ma only became the arch villain he is because of judicial corruption. When someone close to him was killed, he sought justice but was denied because the perpetrators were influential people, the implication being that they were members of the colonial elite which Stewart was propping up. Filled with grief and rage, he’s hellbent on ruining Stewart’s life and doesn’t really care all that much about what he might have to do to do it. As Ip Man points out, he once tried to teach him about the importance of knowing right from wrong, but Ma now believes that the distinction is one made only by the weak for the strong care only about winning.
The secondary part of Ip Man’s mission is dedicated to saving his old friend Xuehu from becoming another Ma after becoming frustrated that he was prevented from marrying the woman he loved because of his poverty and the class difference between them. He too vacillates, uncertain if he will actually betray his friend to get the money to get married while remaining complicit in kidnap and murder. As usual, the situation gives Ip Man a lot of opportunities to remind others of the martial arts philosophy and the importance of humanity even if others try to convince him that “feelings are worth nothing in this world”.
Still, the battle plays out like a chess game as Ip Man tries to outsmart Ma and win the students’ freedom while inexplicably still believing in his good sportsmanship certain that Ma will honour his word and let the hostages go if only he manages to beat his arbitrary challenges. Ip Man fights off the bad guys, dashing over balconies and leaping from windows to save his friends, while experiencing an internal conflict as he finds himself at odds with men he previously respected hoping he can still redeem them even as they seem intent on his death. In any case, the most surprising element of the film maybe that in the end the corruption goes largely unpunished with the true winner the duplicitous policeman with a habit of selectively enforcing the law.
Even Ma seems to recognise the hollowness of his revenge in coming to an understanding of his role and position in otherwise corrupt society while Ip Man appears to win the esteem of Ya Yun’s gangster father who despite his overprotective parenting does nothing at all to try to save her other than raising money and waiting patiently outside the school. Despite its low budget, the film packs in a fair few impressive action sequences beginning with daring prison break and culminating in the schoolhouse siege as the young Ip Man gets the chance to show off his skills while fighting for justice in old Hong Kong.
Young Ip Man is available to stream in the US via Hi-YAH! and released on DVD & Blu-ray May 16 courtesy of Well Go USA.
Trailer (English subtitles)