It’s strange that Hong Kong never seems to improve the Cantonese dubbing for Mandarin-speaking actors. It’s one of the annoying aspects of Ip Man 3, the third and final (?) film in the biopic trilogy.
That aside, Ip Man 3 is interesting in that its trailer is deliberately misleading. Everyone thinks the climactic fight at the end of the movie will be Ip Man against Mike Tyson’s character, a match-up that has been widely publicised prior to the film’s release. It’s true, much of the movie’s plot is taken up by the conflict between Tyson’s gang of shipyard hoodlums and Ip Man and his apprentices. But that is not the main story. (Also add to the deliberate confusion, the much-talked about appearance of a CGI Bruce Lee.)
Yes, there is a surprise in Ip Man 3. But it’s not a twist. It’s a major plot element though, one that takes the movie in a whole different direction somewhere a little past the midway point. And what an emotional whopper it is. More than a few people in the hall where I saw it were left in tears. And it’s what elevates this third film above a mere chop-socky kungfu movie.
But you might be fooled into believing you’re going to see yet another Chinese-versus-“foreign devils” martial arts revenge flick, because the first two-thirds of the movie play it like the first two movies. An American businessman (Tyson) who runs an underground fight arena and owns a shipyard wants to buy up the land on which a school stands. And it’s the school to which Ip Man’s son goes. The businessman, Frank, sends his thugs to create trouble at the school to force the principal into selling the land. But Ip Man and his boys keep foiling their plans.
This is actually just the two-thirds of the plot. In a rather ingeniously seamless transition, a sub-plot takes over as the main plot while the main plot involving Frank actually ends and another subplot begins. Yes, it’s very strange plotting, but it provides the nice and surprising change from the first two movies.
I haven’t actually given anything away here. It’s better that you go into the movie without knowing too much. Unlike The Force Awakens and its silly obsession with keeping things spoiler-free when the movie itself isn’t much of a surprise, Ip Man 3 doesn’t hinge on it being spoiler-free to be effective, but it’s still nice to be surprised.
The movie’s episodic nature eases the plot transition, and the emotional impact of its second-half slowly creeps up on you. The poignancy is delivered through very little dialogue, beautifully rendered visually, helped on by Kenji Kawai’s superb score (the composer has outdone himself this time).
This actually sets up something else for the movie. It’s at this point that the movie somewhat negates its own martial arts action ambitions, that it almost transcends the genre. It poses the question of who exactly a martial artist is, in fiction and in reality. Aren’t they also human beings like you and me, with emotions and flaws, with things in their lives that are more important than martial arts? Aren’t they more than just macho, posturing superheroes whose entire lives seem preoccupied only with fighting and perfecting their skills?
The first two Ip Man movies were largely about anger, hatred and revenge, but this third film draws meaningful parallels between martial arts and life itself. The drama and the action become synced in perfect coherence, but something else takes over – real, heartfelt emotions that seem to denote just how incongruous the typical martial arts fiction of vengeance and fury is. In this respect, the film becomes as gradually self-knowing as the titular character as he begins to achieve the mind of a true grandmaster.
This is what makes the final third of the film such a great ending to a trilogy of uneven results, with a pure emotional punch and a great tribute to Master Ip and his wife, Bruce Lee and wing chun. It imbues the character of Ip Man with real human values, not just fictional martial arts traits of honour and virtue. For Donnie Yen, it might just be the performance of his life.
In the end, Ip Man 3 is no longer just about punching and kicking. In fact, Master Yuen Woo-ping’s choreography is rather unpsectacular. He seems to do best when choreographing fantasy-based wire-fu like in Iron Monkey and The Matrix. But when it comes to reality-based fights, it’s less eye-popping even with his trademark vertically-formed action. Still, there are a couple of noteworthy action set-pieces, and of course, the face-off between Ip Man and Frank.
In the end it’s also not about the much-touted appearance of Mike Tyson. It’s about a grandmaster who has no one left to fight but himself. It’s also about life’s calling and that the pursuit of excellence is not a lonely endeavour. A grandmaster is one who truly understands and accepts himself.
In the end, Ip Man 3 gives us a grandmaster for whom we can not only cheer, but also feel.