By Yun-hua Chen.
Action itself is not enough to compose a good action film – we see yet another hard-earned lesson in Master Z: Ip Man Legacy. Directed by Woo-Ping Yuen, the famous Hong Kong action choreographer, and produced by the same producers of Ip Man 1, 2, 3, 4, Raymond Bak-Ming Wong and Donnie Yen, the team’s ambition of building an “Ip Man universe” is crystal clear. This time the attention is turned to the secondary character Zhang Tian-zhi (or, Cheung Tin-chi in Cantonese) played by Jin Zhang (who played the same character in Ip Man 3) and called “Master Z” here. He is the main opponent in Ip Man 3, in which he fights with Ip Man for the title of the “authentic Wing Chun” and lost. Here, being ashamed of his defeat and having vowed not to use Wing Chun again, he re-starts his life as a grocery store owner and keeps a low profile. After saving a bar owner Fu’s sister by chance, he becomes unwillingly entangled in the corrupted world of intertwined interests between drug dealers and British police officers in the colonized Hong Kong.
Compared to a color palette of low intensity in Ip Man, Master Z does not shy away from saturated and exaggerated colors as well as fluorescent signboards in the recreated nightlife district of the 50s. Those signboards are also served as the battlefield of one of the most carefully choreographed action scenes in the film; Master Z jumps (or rather, flies, with a lot of help from wires) between those lit-up billboards and hangs on to them, sometimes single-handedly, while fighting off the gang of Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng) and his dealer friend Ma King-Sang (Patrick Tam). Another good moment of action happens between Master Z and Tso Ngan Kwan (Michelle Yeoh), Kit’s sister and the gang boss. When Master Z, working as a bar waiter after having lost his grocery shop to the fire that Kit and Ma set, serves Kwan a glass of whisky, Kwan pushes it back with Kung Fu. The subsequent pushing back and forth between Master Z and Kwan while maintaining the glass on the table and whisky in the glass is well-designed and uplifting, but sadly too short and insubstantial, especially when compared with the much more memorable elevator fight in Ip Man 3.
Doubtlessly, Woo-Ping Yuen, who has choreographed action in landmark action films of the film history including The Grandmaster (2013), Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2 (2003, 2004), The Matrix, Reloaded and Revolutions (1999, 2003) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), is good at action scenes. He assembles a cast of A-list actors in Hong Kong and the mainland China including Michelle Yeoh, Kevin Cheng, Patrick Tam and Xing Yu, but these well-known actors seem to be rather under-directed in their under-developed one-dimensional roles. In fact, Yuen attempts to disguise his lack of ability to direct dramatic moments by minimizing dialogues, downplaying plot device and performance, and heavily relying on action sequences to move the plot forward. Admittedly, Jin Zhang is photogenic and fights well, but his stiff facial expression and emotionless dialogue delivery are unable to convey anything beyond a frustrated middle-aged man; his screen image as an underdog almost runs in parallel with his career path. Michelle Yeoh, gorgeous as always, convincingly plays the matriarch with superb martial arts skills, but her presence is very limited and her character incomplete. Kit, Kevin Cheng’s character of the infuriated second boss of the gang, is flimsy and sketchy, whereas Patrick Tam’s appearance serves little more than as a cameo and a reference to Ip Man 3.
The film’s subsidiary to the “Ip Man universe” is so omnipresent that Master Z has sadly lost its own raison d’être. We see similar window-crashing scenes with fists and similar one-against-many spatial deployment. Instead of developing Master Z’s own plotline and exploring his unique character psychology, Yuen lazily uses an overabundance of “flashbacks” in grey tone to bring us back to Ip Man 3. Exactly like Ip Mans, Master Z follows the same thread of “main-melody” (propaganda-like) nationalism and portrays a fallen hero who eventually rises to overcome invaders and colonizers. The ending fight scene between Master Z and the mastermind behind the drug business is a replica of all ending fight scenes of Ip Man; the initially losing Master Z thinks of his long-abandoned Wing Chun all of a sudden and thanks to Wing Chun, he defeats the big bulky westerner, like another clichéd triumph of David over Goliath. Rather than depicting Master Z as a pragmatist and self-centered utilitarian, like the more nuanced portrayal of him in Ip Man 3, Yuen imposes Ip Man’s patriotism, family values, good father image and moral principles upon Master Z and makes him look like a clumsy copycat and a pale imitation.
Without solid all-around cinematic elements, the film becomes a showy ensemble of snippets of fight scenes, which do not even seem fancy enough as stand-alone stunts. Yuen also lost his chance of building a suspenseful “whodunnit” action thriller because the identity of the string-puller behind the drug business is revealed prematurely. There is definitely enough action to appeal to fans of martial arts films, but it is sadly a bit soulless.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.