Inspired by real life martial artist Yip Man, the Ip Man series of films conveys not just the man, but his impact on his community. Beginning in 2008 with the first film, Ip Man starred Donnie Yen (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) as the titular man, looking at how the Japanese invasion of 1937 impacted China. The 2010 film, Ip Man 2, focused on Ip’s move to Hong Kong in 1949, while 2015’s Ip Man 3 took a more traditional action route by offering a stereotypical villain. Ip Man 3 also introduced Yip’s most famous student, Bruce Lee (Danny Chan Kwok-Kwan), and character Cheung Tin Chi (Max Zhang), who would get his own film, 2019’s Master Z: Ip Man Legacy. From Ip Man’s first released in December 2008 to the theatrical premiere of Ip Man 4, the four directly connected films and the one off-shoot create a cinematic legacy exploring the continuing powerful influence Yip’s work. These are not meant to be honest biographical features, but films that uplift and extol Yip’s ideals of honor, good works, and Chinese pride. As a final film, Ip Man 4: The Finale is exactly that, a closing tale that solidifies this series as one of the more innovative and emotionally compelling martial arts sagas in recent memory.
In the time since the passing of Master Ip’s wife Wing-sing (Lynn Hung), their son Ching (He Ye) has begun to have trouble in school, ultimately being expelled. Refusing to see his son be denied an education, he travels to the United States to try to get a recommendation from the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) in San Francisco run by Master Wan Zong Hua (Wu Yue). What should be an easy transaction of support turns political when Zong Hua asks Ip to forbid Bruce from teaching westerners Chinese martial arts, a perceived breach of social mores. Things grow even more complicated when another of Lee’s students, marine Hartman Wu (Van Ness), attracts the ire of Gunnery Sergeant Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins). As personal prejudices collide, Ip finds himself at the center of it all, forced to engage when all he wants is a peaceful future for his son.
There’re two ways to view Ip Man 4: as a film and as a piece of socio-political commentary. Some would argue that virtually all films possess some kind of comment on the world, but there’s something about Ip Man 4 that seems particularly striking. Let’s first examine it as a film in the series.
Written by Edmond Wong, Dana Fukazawa, Chan Tai Lee, and Jil Leung Lai Yin, action directed by legendary choreographer Yuen Wo Ping (Kill Bill: Vol. 2), and directed by series director Yip Wai Shun, Ip Man 4 contains all the behind the scenes pieces to generate a compelling finale. Yip, Yuen, and Wong, Chan, and Jil Leung have worked on at least one other entry in the franchise, if not all, helping to ensure that Ip Man 4 feels like a piece of a larger cinematic puzzle, while also very much its own story. There is no requirement to have seen any of the other films, though having done so makes this finale a richer experience. Unlike the previous films, the focus isn’t entirely on Ip, as the story also implies how everything continues in a post-Ip world. This requires more moving narrative aspects than before, and more time to set up each one for a fulling climax. The upside is that, in addition to a new environment for Ip to investigate, there’re new characters to explore: like the martial arts masters who make up the CBA. The highlight is Wan Yonah (Vanda Margraf), the daughter of Master Wan. The writers use Ip’s new relationship with young Yonah as a narrative tool to reconsider his son’s perspective and to add emotional heft to the undercurrent of racism running throughout the film. Margraf’s performance infuses some delightful energy, especially against Yen’s perpetual stillness. Yen himself is so natural as Ip after three previous films, yet manages to find ways to present the character’s growth. One of the things the Ip Man films always do wonderfully is present Ip as the consummate educator, open to new ideas and always willing to consider what he once believed to understand fully.
The downside of this is that some events in the story feel like showcases for characters/actors making something look cool versus serving the story. For instance, it makes sense to highlight more of the Bruce Lee-Ip Man relationship, but there’s an awkward inclusion via a street fight that seems design merely to highlight one of the most famous faces in American martial arts. On the one hand, it showcases the racial tension that existed (and currently exists today) between so-called nationalists and perceived immigrants. On the other, it’s an extended fight sequence that literally does nothing but show off how cinema remembers Lee: bold, powerful, and with a strict moral code. The fights displayed in Ip Man were rarely just an excuse to have a fight. More often than not, the fights served as a means of communication, for the characters and for the audience to better understand them. This occurs here when Masters Ip and Wan engage in a fight to determine whether Wan will write the recommendation Ip requested. Upon displaying an injury, Wan adjusts his style to fight as an equal to Ip. This signifies a mutual respect and a desire for fair play. It speaks to the character of Wan and later comes back around to speak to the character of Geddes in the climax. It’s a lovely character note whose later echo highlights the differences between characters and their codes of honor. This is a fight with significance to the overall story narratively and thematically, both in the moment and later. So when the fight previously mentioned featuring Lee occurs, it’s quite easy to notice how significantly different the purpose of each altercation is. When servicing the larger story, the fights are beautifully structured feats of physical strength and spiritual fortitude, even as they induce gasps of awe.
If one were to look at Ip Man 4 as merely a martial arts film, there is no denying a certain satisfaction that comes from the ending. The legacy of Ip is truly significant, and the cast and crew take incredible care to ensure its longevity. That said, there’re several aspects that feel far more heavy-handed than previous films wherein subtly seems to go out the window and the whole film begins to feel like an exercise in Chinese Nationalism. Set in 1964 San Francisco, there’s a reasonable expectation of bigotry when depicting the era. Much of the belief in “American Exceptionalism” is that the country can do no wrong and is the best of the best. A look at our history would truly destroy that notion, yet, here we are. Ip Man 4 uses this hypocrisy in several somewhat pointed ways. For one, the narrative sees Ip traveling to the U.S. to look for schools under the impression that the education and life would be better. Yet, Ip quickly observes first-hand how horribly the Chinese community is treated via abuse, threats, and utter disrespect. One character even mentions how Chinese laborers worked on the railway system that connected the country, yet the contribution is disavowed. This accurate statement can be seen even today as xenophobic events happen thanks to the misconceptions around COVID-19. Some of this could be excused as merely a representation of the era and not something intended to bolster a Chinese hero among its people. Except there’s Gunnery Sergeant Geddes, a Marine drill instructor who ends up being a somewhat surprise final villain. He proclaims he’s not racist to an African-American soldier, who just so happens to be painfully locked in a submission hold by an instructor, yet he constantly refutes inclusion of Chinese martial arts when they already use the “superior karate.” Hard to ignore the rants of the obviously bigoted American gunnery sergeant upon the realization that karate is a form of martial arts from Japan, a country which China has had a hotly contested relationship. These aspects don’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the film, so much as the themes and underlying messaging of Chinese community and superiority are far more overt than in previous films.
For the capstone film in a widely enjoyed series, the special features are not exactly a celebration of the end. Included within the home release are three exceptionally brief featurettes and three trailers. While the featurettes do offer the thoughts and feelings from cast and crew about what this film and its predecessors mean to them, averaging around 2 minutes and 10 seconds, none of them are particularly in-depth. It feels like a missed opportunity as this is the official final film, as far as everyone involved is concerned. The lack of stocky special features doesn’t detract from the experience, but there’s certainly a yearning for more after watching them.
Ip Man 4: The Finale Special Features
- Making Of (2:12)
- The 10-Year Legend (2:10)
- The Story (2:27)
- Trailer A
- Trailer B
- U.S. Trailer
Available on digital April 7th, 2020.
Available on 4K UHD Blu-ray Combo Pack, Blu-ray Combo Pack, and DVD April 21st, 2020.
For more information on the release, head to the official Ip Man 4: The Finale website on Well Go USA.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.