Ip Man 4: The Finale (葉問4:完結篇, Wilson Yip, 2019)

Ip Man 4 poster 1Superhero movies may be undergoing something of a complex reevaluation of late, but you can’t deny that they often come in unexpected forms. Ip Man, the man who made Bruce Lee, has himself become a mythical figure, a kind of kung fu saint defending ordinary Chinese people from oppressors and bullies. All heroes, however, must eventually meet their end. Ip Man 4: The Finale (葉問4:完結篇) brings the Donnie Yen starring series to a bombastic close with Ip seemingly facing off against the rising populism of the present day by kicking back against racist aggression in the San Francisco of 1964.

Why would Ip be in San Francisco, you ask? Because Bruce Lee (Danny Chan Kwok-kwan) invited him. Rewinding a few minutes, we discover that Ip has recently been diagnosed with throat cancer which is why he politely declines Bruce’s offer to pay for him to fly to the US to see him in a karate tournament. Personal matters, however, change his mind. His wife now passed away, Ip is struggling to connect with his increasingly rebellious son Jin (Jim Liu) who has been expelled from school for fighting. All Jin wants is to study kung fu like his dad, but Ip doesn’t approve. The headmaster advises him that unruly kids might do better abroad and so Ip decides to visit Bruce and check out schools in the US in the process, but he quickly runs into trouble on learning that the elite private institutions of the area require a recommendation from the Chinese Benevolent Association. The CBA are of the opinion that Chinese martial arts are for the Chinese people and are very angry about Bruce Lee’s determination to teach them far and wide. They were hoping Ip could talk some sense into his former pupil, but Ip is firmly on Bruce’s side. He too believes that martial arts should be a bridge between peoples, not a secret weapon preserving its mystique to intimidate.

This central divide becomes the film’s axis with head of the CBA Wan (Wu Yue) gently reminding Ip that he does not live in the city and is ill qualified to comment on local politics while advocating a gentle path of quiet appeasement. Wan clashes with his feisty daughter, Yonah (Vanda Margraf), who wants to be a cheerleader but faces constant micro aggressions from the openly racist rich kids at the same elite high school Ip wants to send Jin to. Yonah disagrees with her father’s turn the other cheek philosophy and longs to use the martial arts she didn’t particularly enjoy learning for their real purpose, later bonding with Ip after he steps in to frighten a group of posh thugs who attacked her on instruction from her rival on the cheerleading team.

The anti-racism theme slowly dovetails with the mirrored threads of failing fatherhood as Ip realises that he has made all the same mistakes as Wan. Yonah is impressed by Ip’s aura of quiet authority and spiritual power, instantly striking up a kind of paternal relationship with him, but offers cutting critique in casually echoing Jin’s words in complaining that her father has never supported her. Facing his mortality, Ip wanted to ensure his son’s independence as quickly as possible, but refused him the independence of deciding his own future. Eventually he realises that the only way to atone for his failure as a father is to pass his knowledge on while he still can, but a key part of that is that a martial artist must stand up to injustice wherever they see it, which is pretty much everywhere in San Fransisco in 1964.

Somewhat incomprehensibly, the great evil this time around is a group of massively racist karate enthusiasts who like to shout racial slurs at the practitioners of Chinese kung fu. Granted massive racists are not known for their critical thinking abilities, but no one seems to have told them that karate was not born in America which makes their animosity towards kung fu all the stranger. Yet, just as Ip and Bruce had suggested, martial arts can indeed be a bridge as Bruce discovers in besting a promising challenger in an alleyway and getting a big thumbs up in return.

Not everyone is as easily won over, however. Ip’s final battle against a crazed marine instructor (Scott Adkins) plays out as if he really has defeated racism in America by punching out a meat headed bigot with fatherly righteousness which is, however you look at it, a little on the flippant side. It also, of course, plays into the persistent “just stay in China” message of contemporary Chinese cinema, but nevertheless presents a slightly subversive front in clumsily uniting the oppressed population of the city under Ip’s revolutionary banner in opposition to entrenched racism, classism, corruption, and nepotism. Awkwardly delivered perhaps, but you can’t argue with the broadly positive plea for cultural exchange and international co-operation as the best weapons against injustice.


Currently on limited release in UK/US cinemas courtesy of Well Go USA.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Grandmaster (UK Release) (UK Anime Network Review)

background_46481“Once upon a time in Kung Fu”? Really? “Inspired by the True Story of Bruce Lee’s Master”? Yeah, this poster tells you everything you need to know. 1000+ word rant Review of the Weinstein cut of Wong Kar Wai’s latest up at UK Anime Network.


You’d be hard pressed to find a more internationally well loved Chinese director than the achingly cool Wong Kar-wai. When it was revealed that Wong was going to tackle the story of legendary martial arts practitioner Ip Man with frequent collaborator Tony Leung along for the ride, excitement levels were obviously dangerously high and only set to rise. However, the project never quite seemed to get off the ground and, in fact, several other Ip Man movies were made in the meantime including the hugely successful series starring Donnie Yen the third of which is currently in development. The film finally found its way to the Berlin Film Festival in 2013 and received a brief cinema run in the UK last year but is only now reaching UK homes courtesy of Metrodome.

As usual with Wong who’s never quite managed to find the “save & quit” button, The Grandmaster exists in three different versions – the first being the original “Chinese cut” which runs 130 minutes, the second the “Berlin Cut” which runs 123 minutes and then there’s the “Weinstein Cut” which is 108 minutes long. If alarm bells are already ringing on hearing the name Weinstein, you are unfortunately correct – the UK release is limited to the shorter Weinstein cut. Not only is the film 18 minutes shorter than the longest version, it is an entirely different movie. Subplots have been streamlined or removed altogether, scenes have been reordered and rearranged and crucially additional voice over and explanatory title cards have been added for the “benefit” of an international audience. Seeing as few people will have the opportunity to see either of the other cuts of the film, there’s little point in explicating every last difference but suffice to say if you do have the opportunity to view the 130 minute Chinese version of the film it is a much better option than this overly accommodating “Ladybird Book” style international offering.

As for the plot of this Weinstein version, it runs more like a traditional martial arts thriller with Ip Man as the challenger who must fight various bosses to become the king of martial artists with some stuff about not kowtowing to the Japanese thrown in. The film has been “refocused” to centre more definitely on Ip Man himself as THE Grandmaster whereas the Chinese cut of the film situates him slightly to one side of things – almost an impassive observer of the chaotic events which over took Chinese society from the mid 1930s through to the early 1950s as seen through the mirror of the popularism of the kung-fu world both real and imaginary. In fact, in the Chinese  version the real story is arguably that of Zhang Ziyi’s Gong Er whose tragic life story serves as a metaphor for the dangers of a stubborn adherence to traditional values. Left with little to reflect on, this Ip Man’s story is relegated to a martial arts serial style retelling of the early adventures of the man who went on to train Bruce Lee which is both reductive and actually a little insulting.

The Chinese cut of the film is a sweeping, operatic epic rich with restrained emotions and barely suppressed personal, and implied national, tragedies. Most obviously the subtleties of the central love story between Ip Man and Gong Er are all but lost in this version as the scenes which allowed them to build up the necessarily emotional resonance have either ended up on the cutting room floor or been rearranged ruining the careful rhythms of their relationship and robbing the film of its beating heart in the process. Adding to the zombified feeling are the various title cards interspersed throughout the film which simply display a a few stage directions in an extremely ugly white font, almost like the kind you might see in the restoration of a rare film in which some reels are missing and the only way to fill in the blanks for the audience is to provide a scene synopsis for the intervening action. To put it bluntly, this is an extremely amateurish solution which both takes you out of the ongoing action of the film and adds to the feeling that one is being talked down to.

However, it isn’t all bad. The beautifully balletic fight sequences and often stunning cinematography have both made it through largely unscathed. The film has an undeniable aesthetic appeal and those action scenes are just as exciting as they are good to look at. Likewise, the central performances, though often frustrated by the problems raised by this new edit, are universally strong though it’s shame that Zhang Ziyi’s quite extraordinary work here is being unfairly disrupted by the butchering of her character arc. Coming to the film cold entirely unaware that another version exists, you may feel it’s a so so art house kung-fu movie with a bit too much talking, not enough fighting and altogether too much too much distance between the two but perhaps not find it altogether unenjoyable.

It’s a shame that the UK will likely never see the longer cut of The Grandmaster. Though apparently Wong Kar-wai worked closely with Harvey Weinstein to create a version that was more accessible to non Chinese viewers, it’s difficult to believe this extremely dumbed down approach could really be what he was looking for. After all, there is no dubbed track here – viewers opting to watch a subtitled film most likely aren’t looking for something familiar, they’ve chosen it because they’re interested enough in another culture to spend two hours exploring it. They almost certainly don’t need the kind of bald explanatory text offered here (though, really, who would?) and will most likely feel insulted at having been treated like children who need every last little thing explained in painful detail. Nevertheless, if this is the only way to see the latest film from Wong Kar-wai, there is still a fair amount to enjoy but be aware that it’s far from the true version of The Grandmaster and it may be worth your while to seek out the 130 minute Chinese cut to see Wong’s complete vision.


 

The Grandmasters – Full length trailer!

 

Ladies and Gentlemen! Today is a miraculous day for it seems Wong Kar Wai may actually have  finished a film. Wong has been working on The Grandmasters for some years during in which time we’ve had two films starring Donnie Yen among others to have dealt with the life of Ip Man – the man who taught Bruce Lee. Numerous problems and delays have seen the production of this film constantly in flux with release dates slipping over a period of years yet the film now seems to have a fairly solid date for its Chinese release – 18th December 2012. Assuming all goes well (and the film really, actually is finished) Chinese viewers at least will finally get to see Wong Kar Wai’s latest collaboration with frequent leading actor Tony Leung. Of course even if this date is kept to there’s no predicting when we will finally be able to see this in the West (well, the Anglophone world) but happily it is a matter of when rather than if Wong’s version of this now familiar tale will finally hit our shores. The trailer at least looks spectacular so if that’s anything to go on The Grandmasters could be something very special indeed.