Every story has an end.
For legendary grandmaster Ip Man, his is brought to a quiet, poignantly striking close in the last installment of the extremely well-received (semi-) biographical martial arts film series, Ip Man.
Picking up from its predecessor, Ip Man 4: The Finale once again sees director Wilson Yip back at the reins, with Donnie Yen reprising his role as the Wing Chun icon. Now responsible for the single-handed upbringing of his son since the death of his wife in the last film, Ip finds himself struggling to find a connection with the latter, whose brash and rebellious personality is a bone of contention. This leads to him being expelled from school, so Ip considers enrolling him overseas in the States instead. He packs his luggage, books a flight, and makes his way over to the other side of the world.
There, another plotline emerges. His disciple, Bruce Lee (Danny Chan, Ip Man 3, Shaolin Soccer), has upset the local martial arts community by opening a Wing Chun school and accepting non-Chinese enthusiasts – a practice that’s frowned upon by the overseeing committee Chinese Benevolent Association, who holds power over any Chinese-related affairs, including education. Meanwhile, Staff Sergeant Hartman Wu (Vanness Wu, Meteor Garden, Autumn’s Concerto) one of the more promising students of Bruce Lee, wants to convince the Marine Corps to implement Chinese kungfu into their regime. But a clash of culture often spells trouble in the world of Ip Man, and the grandmaster soon finds himself back in the thick of the action with his fellow practitioners.
Action, as expected, remains an absolute delight to watch. Fight scenes feature extremely slick and deft choreography, as characters dish out a flurry of kicks and punches after another. Dynamic close-ups and slowed-down shots, in particular, serve to accentuate the high-octane excitement and increase the thrill factor, such that the impact of the blows exchanged on-screen can almost be felt. The sound of cracked bones, slammed punches, and swift, heavy kicks to the head? Ouch. Yen continues to impress with his martial arts prowess here, slipping easily into the cool, unflappable persona of Ip and doling out his usual Wing Chun chops.
Chan is no slouch as Lee, either. Uncannily similar appearance aside, the latter’s reimagined fight routine of the late lee-gend (hah) takes very well to the silver screen – Ip’s primarily Wing Chun-driven style never fails to get old, but there’s just this thrill and excitement in watching Lee’s unique blend of moves from various martial arts forms. The movie’s replication of his signature moves, such as the two-finger push-up and one-inch punch, also makes for a nice nod to his actual life.
Being jam-packed with fight scenes means it’s difficult to pick out the best of the lot. The most obvious one would be the final face-off that takes place on the training grounds of the Marines compound, where the brutal whirlwind of fists, kicks, and blocks from (almost) evenly-matched opponents serves as the lead-up to an exciting, nail-biting climax. Personally, however, the above-mentioned scene with Lee is a better pick, because the sheer fluidity and variety of his fighting style is really quite the dazzling sight to behold, especially when he goes up against multiple foes.
An honourable mention would be the one-arm fight that Ip undertakes in the movie – a first for the series. Though a short spar, the scene delivers deft, swift, and hard-hitting action that’s nicely balanced out with grace.
Ip Man 4’s inclusion of other grandmasters with different kungfu expertise makes for a nice touch as well. In fact, a woman martial arts master even takes center stage at one point in the movie, and while the outing could do with more screen time, the attempt is encouraging – especially for a male-dominated field set in the era of Ip Man. It’s far from a full-out representation, of course, but it’s an appreciative gesture nonetheless.
One notable feature of the movie is how it carries over and builds upon some elements from its predecessor, such that there’s a sense of familiarity in execution. In Ip Man 3, we saw Ip’s softer, more mellow side, as he strove to be a good father and husband. Here, the same mechanics are at play. In Ip Man 3, Chinese martial arts was pitted against the Western fighting style of boxing, and this cultural clash continues to be a central conflict in the movie. These similarities aren’t necessarily a bad thing, however. The three-minute encounter with boxing in the previous instalment managed to give a glimpse of the style differences, but the juxtaposition between Chinese kungfu and karate – adopted by the Marine Corps – in the latest film allows for more variety and freedom where fight choreography is concerned, especially through the fight-till-the-end approach that the practitioners abide by.
It’s because of this clash in cultures that Ip Man 4 may come across as bold and brutally honest. The matter of proving which martial arts approach is more superior for pride and honour aside, there’s also some political commentary present, as seen from a scene where a character brings up the topic of imperialism in the face of Western superiority. Indeed, the West is depicted as the unlikable bully for the most part of the movie, represented through arrogant, racist Marine commanders and American individuals in positions of power. There’s truth to the on-screen portrayals, and Ip Man 4 hardly pulls its punches on the subject matter, although it does appear to be a little excessive at times. If anything, the negative depiction certainly makes audiences more inclined to support the Chinese underdogs.
Beneath all that fighting glam and political undertones is a story of familial love and kinship. Ip’s continual struggle to be a paternal figure who’s worthy of his son’s respect adds a layer of vulnerability to his personality, and serves as a reminder that he, too, is a flawed human – something that often goes forgotten in light of his impeccable skills and collected demeanour. Yen does a good job of highlighting his character’s emotional difficulties, conveying them through small actions and facial expression shifts.
Ip isn’t the only father experiencing parenting issues in Ip Man 4, however. Placed in a similar situation, the president of the Chinese Benevolent Association doesn’t quite know how to keep his teenage daughter in check, who displays the same rebellious and headstrong traits as Ip’s son. This very behaviour is what draws Ip to care for her later, and it’s purposefully ironic – Ip is willing to listen to her, and shares his thoughts on upbringing with the president; yet, he doesn’t heed his advice when his own son is involved. The journey that the two dads embark on is a heartening, warm affair, as they both grow to recognise the faults in their parenting styles and attempt to become better paternal versions of themselves.
It’s a good thing that Ip Man 4 has the action and emotional appeal to fall back on, because its plot is hardly one to boast about. Apart from being predictable on all ends, the movie’s way of introducing more tension involves the use of a petty character motive that doesn’t do much than to complicate the story unnecessarily. The scenes with a Chinese-Western showdown also seem to be a little incredulous, especially with how the Marine commanders can just leave camp to challenge their kungfu counterparts for personal interests. But hey, this is Ip Man, and nobody really goes into the cinema expecting it to be a storytelling masterpiece, so take the flaws with a grain of salt.
At its core, Ip Man 4: The Finale is a martial arts film that’s full of heart. It does what it has always done best, and embellishes aplenty with a welcome touch of emotional vulnerability. The narrative component may have dulled the shine a little, but the movie makes up for it in the form of its signature action thrills, as well as a proper sense of closure. Every story has an end, and fortunately for fans of the series, Ip Man 4 has acted upon that well.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
Not only does Ip Man 4: The Finale deliver crisp, exhilarating martial arts chops, it also delivers a satisfying closure to mark the end of a legacy.
Story - 7/10
Direction - 8/10
Characterisation - 8/10
Geek Satisfaction - 8/10