Contemporary Chinese Cinema is a column devoted to exploring contemporary Chinese-language cinema primarily as it is revealed to us at North American multiplexes.
Opening this week across North America is Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, the seventh Ip Man-related film to have been released since the first one appeared just over ten years ago, in December of 2008. Produced by Raymond Wong Bak-ming, one of the founding comedians of the influential 1980s studio Cinema City, and directed by Wilson Yip, the film starred Donnie Yen as the Wing Chun master most famous for being one of Bruce Lee’s teachers. Ip Man was a big success, both critically (it won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Picture) and commercially, and spawned two sequels (with a third on the way later in 2019) and this spin-off film, starring Zhang Jin. It also inspired a couple of fine films by Herman Yau about a younger version of Ip Man (Ip Man: The Legend Begins) and a more historically accurate older version (Ip Man: The Final Fight), featuring much of the same cast and crew (choreographer and actor Sammo Hung, Ip’s son Ip Chun, and actor Louis Fan chief among them). It also helped clear the way for Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, a film about Ip Man that also won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Picture. Wong’s film is by far the best of the Ip Man movies; it remains a stunning achievement, weaving the history of China in the 20th century through the story of the rivalries between various factions of kung fu artistry while delivering all the ravishing beauty one expects from Wong and the mind-blowing fights one hopes to see in a martial arts movie. The Herman Yau films are much less ambitious, and are especially marred by inane third act plot developments, but both have their fine points: an emphasis on the particulars of the Wing Chun style in the first film, ably performed by Dennis To and Ip Chun himself; and a very real sense of 1950s Hong Kong anchored by a soulful performance from Anthony Wong in the later film. As for the Wilson Yip films, well, Donnie Yen is always a lot of fun.
Not especially tethered to historical reality (which gets worse as the series goes along, becoming especially egregious in the third one), the Yip/Yen movies are a conscious attempt to reformulate traditional kung fu folk heroes for the 21st century. The model is Wong Fei-hung, like Ip Man a real-life martial artist, who lived in Guangzhou from 1847 to 1925. Wong is the subject of countless films, from a massive number of serials in the 1950s and 60s starring Kwan Tak-hing (on which future important choreographers like Lau Kar-leung and Yuen Woo-ping worked) to re-conceptions of the character starring Gordon Liu (in Lau’s Challenge of the Masters and Martial Club), Jackie Chan (in the Drunken Master films), and Jet Li (in Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series). In most versions (the Jackie Chan ones are intentional subversive), Wong is presented as an ideal of Confucian authority, a noble figure protecting the weak and the innocent from the unjust predations of the violent and aggressive. Tsui gives him a political bent, aligning Wong with Sun Yat-sen’s reform movements in asserting a kind of Chinese nationalism opposed to the imperialist West. The Ip Man films bring this figure into the next phases of Chinese history: the Anti-Japanese War, the split between Mainland China and British Hong Kong, and the growth of criminality (and its connections to martial arts, at least in the movies) in post-war Hong Kong.
To this end, the Yip/Yen films follow a basic formula, with Yen’s virtuous teacher eventually forced to confront an imperialist in a brawl. In the first film, set during the war, he fights a Japanese general. In the second, now relocated to Hong Kong, he fights an English boxer (avenging poor Sammo Hung, Rocky IV style). In the third, he fights Mike Tyson, incongruously playing a real estate developer/Triad boss. Each of the films also features a secondary duel, between Yen and a fellow Chinese boxer (Louis Fan, Sammo Hung, and Zhang Jin, respectively). The fights, choreographed by Hung in the first two films and Yuen Woo-ping in the third, are all very good of course—whatever Donnie Yen’s limitations are as an actor, he’s always been a compelling on-screen fighter. For the most part eschewing special effects (some slow and fast motion, a hidden wire here or there), they’re ultimately the most grounded things in films that are in most other ways completely phony, relying on digital effects to scrub and prettify their environments much as they scrub history in favor of idealizing their hero. There’s a glossiness to the world of Ip Man that’s belied by every bone-crunching punch or limb-cracking kick. They’re half decorous prestige picture, half bloody exploitation movie.
All of this is the case as well with Master Z, a spin-off of the series starring Zhang Jin (billed for U.S. release with his English name: Max Zhang). A rival Wing Chun master, albeit a more morally flexible (but not altogether bad) one, who had challenged Ip Man and lost at the end of the third movie, Zhang finds himself running a grocery store somewhere in 1960s Hong Kong, while doing a little hired muscle work on the side. As the film begins, he decides to retire from the tough guy business, and then runs afoul of a local Triad in protecting a young woman (played by Liu Yan) from a gang and has his home and business torched. Aligned now with the woman and her brother, a local bar owner, he attempts to navigate various enemies: the Triad (Kevin Cheng), the Triad’s sister and boss (Michelle Yeoh), Zhang’s old boss and rival hired tough (Yuen Wah and Tony Jaa, respectively), the corrupt local police (as in the earlier films, the British are the corrupt ones, with a Hong Kong cop played by Philip Keung caught in the middle), and a wealthy steakhouse owner who may also be a heroin dealer (Dave Bautista). Taking over directing duties in addition to choreographing is Yuen Woo-ping.
In most cases, Master Z is of a piece with the earlier Ip Man films. Zhang doesn’t have Donnie Yen’s easy likability as a lead actor—there’s a kind of emptiness to him that has kept him from really becoming the star he could be, given how good a fighter he is on-screen. Sometimes it takes a long time for a martial artist to become a lead actor—Yen himself worked for years before finally breaking through. It was Yuen Woo-ping who first saw Yen’s potential, casting him again and again in films as diverse as the period kung fu comedy Drunken Tai Chi, the contemporary breakdance comedy Mismatched Couples (which is as amazing as it sounds), cop dramas Tiger Cage and In the Line of Duty IV, and finally the very great Wong Fei-hung spin-off Iron Monkey. Yuen also directed Yen in a supporting role in 1994’s Wing Chun, one of Michelle Yeoh’s best films, in which she plays the first master of the style Ip Man would popularize (her teacher is played Come Drink with Me star Cheng Pei-pei). Yuen also was the choreographer for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which starred Yeoh and Cheng Pei-pei and in which Zhang Ziyi’s stunt double was Zhang Jin. Zhang Jin also played the villain in The Grandmaster, where he fought a duel with Zhang Ziyi and also wherein Ip Man’s teacher was played by Yuen Woo-ping, who also was the film’s choreographer. The world of Hong Kong martial arts movies is dizzyingly small.
Anyway, in recent years, spurred by his strong work in The Grandmaster and an amazing supporting turn in SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (itself a sequel, in name only, to a 2005 Donnie Yen/Wilson Yip film), Zhang Jin finally seems to be getting the chance to lead some films on his own. Last year’s The Brink was a dour cop/Triad drama that didn’t do much to enhance his charm, though it did offer a lot of brutal beatings, bad hair, and existential depression, and Master Z doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with him either. The solution, of course, is to surround him with other compelling presences. Tony Jaa appears only briefly, but the two have a great fight. Michelle Yeoh is in much more of the film, and she has a great fight with him as well (a really cool sequence with two fights going on simultaneously in two connected rooms that brings back memories of when Yuen or Hung would throw these nonchalantly virtuosic scenes into movies seemingly at random). Bautista I only know from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies (I’m not a follower of professional wrestling, I prefer to get my fake fighting fix in cinematic form), so it was weird seeing him not covered in blue paint (and honestly his bald, egg-shaped head and mustache mostly just made me wonder if he should play Hercule Poirot), but he and Zhang have a great fight too. In fact, all the fights are great. After a couple of decidedly lackluster CGI-strewn would-be epics with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny and The Thousand Faces of Dunjia, it’s fun to see Yuen Woo-ping once again doing what he does best: think up incredibly elegant and whimsical ways for human beings to jump around and hit each other.
The movie’s high point comes fairly early on, where Zhang fights a gang of Triads on a street full of bars (called, helpfully, “Bar Street”). The street is packed with overhanging neon signs, which the actors leap upon and across as they fight. It’s reminiscent of the best sequence in Dunjia, an early rooftop chase, but a bit more grounded in reality and a lot more colorful. The world of Master Z should not be taken as actual in any way; where SPL 2 or Paradox (directed by Wilson Yip, choreographed by Sammo Hung) are located in the real world, everything in Master Z is, or at least looks, digitally-enhanced, made just a bit brighter, just a bit shinier, and a whole lot cleaner, than it actually should be. At best, it evokes some of the feel of the 1960s Hong Kong musicals, bright melodramas like the Cheng Pei-pei starring Hong Kong Nocturne. But mostly this is just the standard look of Hong Kong period films nowadays: pretty, but empty.
Where Master Z improves on the Yip/Yen films is in its simplicity. Yuen and Zhang aren’t trying to establish a paragon of Chinese virtue. Master Z walks a fine line between the Ip Man series’s puffed-up pretensions and the grimy underworld fighting of the SPL series. Zhang Jin has a taciturn stoicism that Hong Kong just hasn’t yet exploited to his potential. In Master Z he plays a tired fighter who really just wants to be left alone to raise his son in peace, but is forced to take a stand against a vast array of evils, and in the process comes close to reconfiguring his world along more honorable lines. In more dramatically adventurous hands it might have been a kung fu Outlaw Josey Wales. But instead it’s a bright, shiny movie with a lot of cool punching and kicking.