There have been several actors who’ve personified the Wing Chun master Ip Man on the big screen. Ip Chun, Man’s son, portrayed Man as Bruce Lee’s mentor in the 1976 film Bruce Lee: The Man, The Myth. Wang Luoyong (Rollerball) took on the role in 1993’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. The most well-known is likely the four-film series featuring Donnie Yen which released 2008 – 2019. During Yen’s run, there was both Dennis To in 2010’s The Legend is Born – Ip Man and 2018’s Kung Fu League and Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love) in director Wong Kar-wai’s 2013 adaptation, The Grandmaster. The latest to take on the mantle of the real-life master and cinematic folk hero is Miu Tse (My Father is a Hero) in co-directors Zhang Zhulin and Li Xijie and co-writers Fang Lan and Liu Bayin’s prequel story Ip Man: The Awakening. Previous stories either showed Ip Man as a young man well established in Hong Kong or as the wizened mentor to budding martial artist Bruce Lee, but The Awakening attempts to go back toward the beginning when Ip was a young master just starting to understand justice and righteousness. Unfortunately, while Miu appears up to the task of carrying the mantle, he does so in a film that is not.
Soon after Ip Man enters Hong Kong, he interrupts a mugging, which accidentally reunites him with an old friend, Bufeng (Chen Guan Ying), and his sister, Chan (Zhao Yu Xuan). Bufeng offers to give him a job working at his rickshaw business in order to help Ip Man get his feet under him. While on the job, however, Ip Man stumbles on some human traffickers at work and, by preventing them from kidnapping several women, Ip Man ends up in the crosshairs of Mr. Stark (Sergio De Ieso), a British smuggler with a superiority complex. Things grow personal between the two when, separately, Chan is kidnapped and Ip Man defeats both of Mr. Stark’s fighters. Their feud has the potential to either tear Hong Kong apart or raise it up.
During a flashback, we watch as Ip Man learns a lesson from his master (played by Hou Tongjiang) about mindfulness. The two, blind-folded and giving what appears to be a massage, his master states, “Follow the move, not your hands. Use Your mind, not your eyes.” It’s a valuable lesson for Ip which comes right as he needs it most in the present, but it’s also a great descriptor for Awakening as a whole. The script by Fang and Liu want the audience to go for a ride as we see Ip Man become who we’ve seen him be in future cinematic tales, except they want you to be so enamored by the idea of the master and distracted by the criminality of the villain that you don’t notice or care how incomplete the whole film feels. There’s a transition that takes place using a newspaper that short-hands what is happening, the second of the two newspaper articles serving as the transition into the following scene. If the intent is for the audience to know some activity that occurred while we weren’t looking to better explain why things are the way they are, it doesn’t do that because the image in the article has nothing to do with where we’re going but has everything to do with something that had already happened previously. Similarly (and this is a minor spoiler) there’s no rescue of Chan shown on screen. Though her kidnapping isn’t the inciting incident to Ip Man’s involvement, it is critical to setting personal stakes between he and Bufeng, relative to the conflict with Mr. Stark. But upon the final confrontation, Chan is freed and fine, the film having skipped how entirely. This becomes particularly sticky as the last time we saw her on-screen, her mortality was surely in question. There are many moments like this throughout Awakening, which make one grateful that the film is just under 80 minutes with credits.
Even if the story weren’t so weak in clarity, a martial arts film should at least have solid action in which to deliver the kind of sequences martial arts films (like Ip Man’s (2008) one-vs-many fight) promise via their genre. The issue is that where Yen’s Ip Man had someone like Wilson Yip behind the camera, a veteran action, Awakening seems to be the third film for Zhang and second for Li, the two having worked together previously as a directing pair on 2020’s Eighteen Arhats of Shaolin Temple (少林寺十八罗汉). From the initial fight sequence, in which we’re introduced to Mr. Stark and his lead fighters, there’s meant to be a sense of terror and awe, except the edits come as fast as the fisticuffs, meaning that not only is the action hard to follow, but it often feels disjointed. In a later sequence with Ip Man and Bufeng fighting side-by-side, there are noticeable moments of jump cuts and undercranking so that actions appear faster than are actually occurring. It’s a great trick to hide weaknesses in action when the action itself has other aspects which can distract the audience from noticing. Later in the film, however, there’s a three-punch sequence where the camera focuses on Ip Man’s face, keeping the whole head in frame, as he dodges each individual punch that’s meant to look exceptionally cool, amplifying the mythos of Ip Man. Problem is, as shot, it’s quite obvious the unrealistic nature of what’s occurring as we can plainly see the second punch stop far short of Ip Man’s face before he starts his dodge. That there are so many underwhelming moments in the film, from narrative to action, makes this one of the most infuriating experiences *because* it’s a story featuring one of China’s most beloved martial arts masters.
What the film gets right is the casting of Miu and capturing the political undertones of the era. Miu’s been making films since 1994, several of which are martial arts-related. Possessing a look that feels reminiscent of a young Yen, Miu steps into the role with some built-in credibility and he has the physical capability and performer’s talent to make for a convincing Ip Man. While this film does him no favors, with a more action-suitable director and stronger script, Miu could find a way to make the role his own, as prior actors have done. If there’s one thing that this film gets right, which Ip Man (2008) also did, is incorporating the real history of imperialism that split Hong Kong. If it wasn’t the Japanese inhabiting the country, it was the British, so using the Brits as an enemy specifically and as a larger metaphor for Chinese control works really well to help set up the pre-folk hero Ip Man to become the freedom leader he’s presented to be. I don’t think it’s any kind of coincidence that once Ip Man faces Mr. Stark face-to-face with no lackeys or politics between them, it’s a no contest showdown. It’s nowhere near as satisfying as the final fight between Dave Bautista’s Owen Davidson and Max Zhang’s Cheung Tin Chi, but, in giving it time to marinate, I don’t think it’s meant to be. Mr. Stark is a skilled fighter (we’re shown that in the opening), but he’s mostly bluster and his fight against Ip Man lives up to the reputation of the fighter Ip Man is known to be.
If you’re planning to purchase Ip Man: The Awakening, be advised that it only includes a trailer for the film and preview trailers for current or upcoming Well Go USA releases. There are no included featurettes or bonus materials.
Unless you’re an Ip Man completest, there’re better Ip Man stories to see and explore. Personally, I would’ve preferred a follow-up to Max Zhang’s story to see where that tale of redemption could go. There’s plenty more to be mined from that and Zhang has the skills to make it believable. Instead, there’s Awakening, which does anything but that for its audience. Outside of Miu’s performance, there’s little that’s memorable or that hasn’t been done better and more convincingly in a different film. As a martial arts film, it’s most assuredly a bummer.
Available to stream on Hi-YAH! May 20th, 2022.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital June 21st, 2022.
For more information, head to Well Go USA’s official Ip Man: The Awakening webpage.
Final Score: 1.5 out of 5.