“I am a martial artist. In the face of injustice, I must stand up and fight. That was why we took up martial arts.”
The final chapter in a franchise beloved to millions. Highly anticipated, and coming at the close of a decade, this franchise speaks to millions and has dominated the box office for over a decade. The first installment had an impact on the film industry no one saw coming.
Although the year 2019 saw the (alleged) end of the Skywalker Saga of Star Wars and Toy Story, I am here talking about the (alleged) end of Donnie Yen’s Ip Man series (though there was even an excellent series spinoff that came out last year, so who knows).
When Ip Man hit in 2008, I don’t think anyone expected it to blow up the way it did — netting both audience and critical acclaim (taking the Best Film prize in that year’s Hong Kong Movie Awards). It kicked off a bunch of Ip-sploitation movies and TV series. But it was always Donnie Yen as Ip Man who remained the definitive onscreen version of the real-life (now framed) folk hero, and two more entries in 2010 and 2016 (the entire endeavor directed by Wilson Yip) respectively helped cement the franchise as Yen’s defining pop-culture role.
Yen has brought some of both his best acting and action chops to the series, and with such great action directors as Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-ping on board, as well as an ever-stirring soundtrack by Kenji Kawai, this remarkable consistency has helped every Ip Man have a baseline level of quality. There are definitely some political issues which I’ll avoid here that may tip folks’ hands one way or the other regarding the series, but I’ll leave the reader to make up their own mind regarding those. It’s also worth noting that the Ip Man character in the films departs significantly from real life, but I mean everyone loves Braveheart which gets a pass, so no big deal I think.
So after that long preamble, where does that find us with Ip Man 4: The Finale? Well, they added the first subtitle to the series to underline the fact that this is the final one, so that should give you a clue. Master Ip is diagnosed with cancer and wants to find a way to look after his son after he’s gone. So it’s serendipitous that his student Bruce Lee (yes, that one) invites him to travel to watch him in his famous karate tournament in America — where Ip Man will also look for a school for his son.
Of course, things aren’t that simple and Ip Man will end up having to fight in a variety of situations before ultimately taking on a U.S. Marine Sergeant played by Scott Adkins with what I can only describe as racist gusto. He makes for a good villain, anyhow, and holds his own against Yen in the cracking climactic fight.
Much of this plot in some ways felt like a retread of Ip Man 2 but it works far better in the new setting. The extraordinary racist villain in Ip Man 2 was almost too much to really take his racism seriously, but Ip Man 4: The Finale fixes this by focusing on racist violence against Chinese immigrants in the U.S. This is far more realistic (there were literally laws against Chinese settling in the U.S.), and having Ip Man stand in to stop a girl being bullied at school or to protect immigrant communities and the ideas of a pluralistic society feels really awesome.
And while maybe the racists weren’t as open about it (at least in San Francisco), they definitely were still (and are) around; any exaggeration for effect is hardly a crime for which this series alone is responsible. Indeed, in the months since COVID-19 has hit the world — along with a sharp spike in hate crimes against Asian members of many societies due to racist perceptions about the virus and who might be spreading it — it seems sadly as plausible as ever for people to act as racist cowards. Perhaps not as exaggerated as those found in the film but certainly no less sinister. And like Ip Man, we must stand up to racism and fight with our utmost to stop it in any way, shape or form. If you find yourself in a situation thinking “Ip Man wouldn’t approve of this,” stand up like the kung-fu master would and protect those that need it.
Ip Man also comes to the defense of Bruce Lee in teaching white Americans kung fu, which I think helps cement his stance as pluralistic in this movie. But yeah, in this day and age there’s a lot of immense pleasure to be gained from Ip Man beating the shit out of racists (who somehow practice karate but it’s also Asian and … oh , never mind) and I don’t feel guilty for enjoying it. And yeah, some of the non-Chinese acting is … awful but it almost adds to the atmosphere and character of these movies.
As a finale, Ip Man 4: The Finale serves its character well. We get great summary story (thematically) of what Ip Man is all about and some great fights. Yen and Yuen Woo-ping do great with the action, and Ip Man in this film fights like his age and as a Grandmaster who knows his shit but is also not as young as he used to be. Yen’s physical performance is excellent as always in these films and he does a lot to carry Ip Man to his finale. He sells the lessons Ip Man learns in this movie and does a great job as man who knows his time is running out.
Ip Man 4: The Finale doesn’t quite reach the pitch-perfect level of the original or the narrative complexity and nuance (such as they are) of the third entry. But it serves as an emotional and thematically fitting end point for the character and a franchise that must now be considered a modern classic of martial-arts movies. And maybe it’ll inspire some people to stand up against injustice and call it out when they see it, just like Ip Man in these films. The final shot contains Bruce Lee paying homage to Ip Man, and with that image right there these films tie Lee’s master to him directly as if to say “without Ip Man, there is no Bruce Lee.” Take from that statement what you will. But I think it’s fair to say that this franchise has cemented the master with a similar iconic and heroic status as that of his most famous pupil, and it’s done a hell of a job of it.
Oh yeah, and this is the best film of 2019 that features Bruce Lee in California in the 1960s because he rightly gets to beat the shit out of a racist. Hell, yeah.
NB: For the record, my ranking would be:
Ip Man 3
Ip Man 4: The Finale
Ip Man Legacy: Master Z
Ip Man 2
For further reading, as it were, I encourage you to check out the excellent video essay on writing the Ip Man movies and Superman by Accented Cinema.