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Review – Ip Man: Kung Fu Master – “All very exciting on the surface”

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Following the long line of Ip Man films comes another prequel story set in his younger days in 1949. This time Ip (played again by Dennis To) is framed for the murder of a mob boss and must contend with his vengeful daughter, the criminal underworld and a corrupt police force. It’s all very exciting on the surface but the film spends no time fleshing these details out, robbing the fights of their context. At some point it does feel like half the film is missing as characters seemingly make friendships and deals off-screen.

The film starts with Ip working as a police captain who is trying to maintain order and locate the source of drugs flooding into Guangzhou. When his eye turns to the local mob boss of the Axe Gang he fights his way through his henchman. It’s an entertaining fight but at the time I still had no idea who or why things were happening. Surprisingly the mobster is honourable and – most importantly – patriotic. Patriotism becomes a key theme as the Japanese army enters Guangzhou at around the same time the mobster is found dead and Ip man is framed. Ip man refuses to toe the line with the police and soon has to hand in his badge too. It’s a general low point in the film for him as he’s forced to give up his job so he can stay moral. At around 1 hour 30 minutes this may seem like enough to fill the run time but the film continues with adding more plot lines, such as becoming the vigilante the ‘black knight’, fighting the general of the Japanese army and fighting off the daughter of the mobster while he tries to clear his name. It’s a lot to pack in and you’re immediately lost.

New to the franchise is the director Li Liming, who brings steady and sometimes beautiful cinematography to the film. It then adds to the shame that so much of the film feels so empty. At times I wondered if it would be best to just watch clips out of context, as the film is mostly incoherent anyway. It’s quite a disappointment when the film shows such competency in all other areas but the editing and story. There’s a memorable fight in the rain that lost all depth when it was only after the fight did the film explain why there was a fight in the first place, with no stakes to invest in the fight becomes ultimately hollow.

At such a low run time, it might not feel like it would be a waste of time to watch this, but it really is a disappointment. Despite the actors and choreography and fighting being good it was like watching half a film. I think this film may only be for the die-hard fans at best.

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