This movie franchise changed the Kung Fu cinema scene from Jet Li’s somersault wire-fu Wong Fei Hung era to the narrow stance, tight rapid hands era of Donnie Yen’s Ip Man. It shines as a Kung Fu action movie with clearly pronounced techniques that is grounded in reality.
We will get to the action later.
We see a much older Ip Man in Ip Man 3. He is a recognized leader of the Kung Fu fraternity. He is also a family man and devoted husband who place priority in his wife and child before his activities in the martial arts circle. He even ignores public declarations by his rival Cheung Tin Chi and a critical duel because he feels he has to take care of his sick wife. This movie’s drama is centred around Ip Man’s critical decision making between family and his duties as a Kung Fu master.
As I am not certain of the history of the real Ip Man, I am commenting purely based on the movie plotline. This central drama is appealing to modern sentiments as it tugs at the romantic heartstrings while questioning the place of violence. But Ip Man movies are set in a different time. A man of his skill and leadership has no choice but to answer their call to duty because they are few and society needs them. I would argue that Ip Man’s wife in the movie is not sensible. In a time of social disorder when gangs rule the streets and fists rule the right of way, Ip Man’s hesitance can cause much strife and violence, putting allies at risk. Ip Man 3’s older, more conservative Ip Man thus creates a vacuum for an exciting new action wild card. One readily filled by Cheung Tin Chi.
Ip Man vs Cheung Tin Chi
Zhang Jin’s Cheung Tin Chi isn’t your typical one-dimensional villain. While blinded by the need to better his situation and climb the social ladder in the martial arts world, he is still innately decent, believing in honorable one-to-one fights to prove one’s skills. He also lent a hand in diffusing the school raid and rescuing the children from the gang, knowing that he cannot continue to side with the wrong against his conscience. He fights for his ambition in a social caste environment that keeps him down and feels he has no choice but to elevate himself in a ‘not-so-beautiful’ way, unlike Ip Man. If you remember in Ip Man 1, Ip Man became famous because he was from a well-off background and did casual sparring with Kung Fu instructors in his town, earning his reputation. From here we know, circumstances force people to solve problems differently.
This anti-hero also becomes an interesting contrast to an older Ip Man’s more conservative family man attitude. Cheung is Ip Man’s rival, he uses an identical style of Wing Chun as Ip Man, his strategy however, is more initiative and offensive, notably using more power to hit his opponents. Notably, the actor Zhang Jin was trained in Wushu prior to this movie and moves like he is more familiar with a harder style. This character’s eventual change of heart to fight with the good guys and his ready admission of defeat will further endear this character to the audience and make him the one to watch in the future Ip Man installations.
Many kung fu practitioners I have spoken to prefer Cheung Tin Chi’s character as he takes more initiative and seeks fights to improve his own skills. Indeed, if every Kung Fu practitioner follows the ideal image of a smiling conforming gentleman imagined by movie trend followers, Kung Fu will surely decline due to lack to testing and practical usage. A Kung Fu man must constantly test himself with sparring or even fighting, to keep his skills relevant to reality. Even the famous Ip Man must be tested and pressured, if Kung Fu standards among practitioners are to rise to a higher level. In fact, Chinese Kung Fu must be constantly used if it is to be alive and constantly combat capable. Challengers seeking for martial arts to be tested are not wrong, for the decision to become a martial artist is to live with the challenge. Kung Fu will not survive in complete peace, ignorant of conflict.
In terms of the fighting on-screen, this movie has done for Wing Chun what Wrath of Vajra did not do for Fujian Shaolin. Its clear pronounced techniques coupled with excellent choreography and camera work has won huge support to the martial art style of Wing Chun. I mentioned in that review about giving the martial art a clear style identity and Ip Man movies have been very consistent in this. Wing Chun practitioners may have disputed that the technique usages are not completely accurate but the final effects has proven to do more for the style than if it were a fully conservative portrayal.
Cheung Tin Chi’s fighting style is actually more Wing Chun than Ip Man. When Ip Man sees an attack coming he stand in his position and blocks with his hands, frequently using the crossed forearm block against swinging punches and kicks. Blocks this way is more of a Hung Gar approach, which many would’ve wished it’s presented in a more ‘gentle fist’ way. He even broke a wooden pole in half with his iron palm. Gentle fist fans, do you practice iron palm?
Contrary to Ip Man’s hard blocks, Cheung Tin Chi will step into the opponent and jam his striking limb, his hands clearing away his opponent’s defenses and smacking his opponent one after another. Zhang Jin is precise and fluid, his showcase of skill is on par with Donnie Yen. Kung Fu movies have this charm that Hollywood hardly comes close to emulating. The actors do not merely present their personal fighting style from their own comfort zone; these versatile professionals produce the action that is required to give the movie the unique flavor to make it a masterpiece. Who knows perhaps Ip Man needed to show he is a firmly grounded master, hence they gave him more hard blocks? Even for a Hung Gar man like me, I will step in to block most of the time, or step out of range. I always want to deny my opponent a good gauge of my position.
Bring out the weapons
I have to praise this movie for bringing out the weapons. We finally get to see the butterfly swords and the long pole in action. It might encourage more Kung Fu practitioners to train their butterfly swords and build up the value of the long pole. While many may find the butterfly sword fight scene unreal as neither of the fighters got cut, the fight scene has effectively demonstrated the functions of the weapon. You can see how they cover different angles with the weapon in attack and defense and the stances that they guard and strike from. I find it more technically accurate than many of the Shaw Brothers fight scenes with the weapon, where fighters twirl round and round with loose contact and unclear strokes for minutes. Ip Man‘s tight knife contact and form strikes a clear message, and Donnie Yen gives you the clearest Kung Fu expressions. It is movies like Ip Man that has the full package of clear drama, touching plot and distinct choreography, which will engineer the trends.
The choreography portrayed the strong footwork for both the butterfly sword and long pole. While handling weapons, you need to coordinate the weapon holding hands with your footwork. This is especially true for the long pole, as you need a wider stance to support the long and heavy weapon. Even if you are using the butterfly swords, a wider and lower stance will give you more leverage to spring into movement, and give you more reach.
A mention of this movie would not be complete without talking about the much anticipated face-off with Mike Tyson. Legendary heavyweight boxer whose thunderous punches are so powerful he scores knockouts on most of his fights. Before the movie’s release, everyone was speculating about how the choreography will turn out. It didn’t disappoint and showed Tyson’s powerful body blows, though that uppercut that rocked Ip Man but didn’t give him lights out was a little suspicious. But we have to consider the point that boxers are trained to fight with thick leather gloves, what’s more with bandage hand wraps inside them to stabilize their hand joints. In a street fight, a boxer’s damage potential may not be maximized without his gloves.
But respect this man for his power, and respect for his character too. Despite being one of the villains, he’s actually quite cool, speaking in an easy going tone like a casual American. You gotta like him for being direct and cheerful. A villain who let Ip Man go after he passed the challenge, and a villain who loves kids isn’t that bad after all. I’m going to give a thumbs up to this character for uplifting the usual formal hierarchical Chinese mindset that plagues Chinese nationalist movies.
Ip Man vs Thai Fighter
There is a fight scene that caught many trained movie goers’ attention, the Thai assassin fight scene. It is sure to raise some eyebrows about ‘Muay Thai vs Wing Chun’, at least in the movies. When the lift door shuts tight, the assassin dished out his trademark flesh and bone weapons from close proximity, the elbows and knees. This barefooted brawler switches to hitting with elbows immediately after his punches are blocked. Usually fighters are not able to deliver attacks effectively from short range because their punches and kicks do not have enough distance to be used, especially the fighters that Ip Man has faced before. This fighter is confident in close range because of the mastery of his second joint.
However, our hero has his own skills to cope with such a fighter. The proper Wing Chun way of defense is to intercept and divert the strike’s power, so Ip Man advanced his hands into the path of his opponent’s punches, denying acceleration and retaliating with punches and palm strikes of his own. He also made good use of the intercepting straight low kicks to control the assassin’s kicking. This fight scene is not easy to film as it takes place in a lift, narrow corridors and down a staircase, both for the camera crew and the actors. It is not easy to use ring fighting methods in such an environment too, because of the uneven grounding and obstacles around you. And Ip Man showed his opponent that he picked the wrong place to do his job.
There is one part that caught my attention. It’s the part where the gang leader says that he’ll sell the kidnapped kids to Nanyang as slaves, similarly to the plotline in Rise of the Legend. The singular most terrifying threat to all Chinese children in those days. Nanyang of course refers to Singapore, the very country your feet are stepping on now. SG50 going on 51 yo! Okay so in 1959 we Singaporeans are mostly slaves. Give yourself a pat your country now has one of the highest concentration of millionaires in the world and worlds apart from its slave house status in 1959.
I have no doubt that we in scary Nanyang have our own Kung Fu stories against injustice and oppression and maybe one day they will also be told. This is also a good reminder to Singaporeans to elevate ourselves above a slavery mindset with basic concerns of self-preservation and material hoarding. Don’t take our peace for granted and open our minds to fully participate as a defender of what is good. Be like Ip Man in the movies or bravely right wrongs like Wong Fei Hung! Donnie Yen has been reported to say that this is likely his last Kung Fu movie at age 51. But it certainly would not be the last Ip Man because the movie has left many strings to be tied and begs for a sequel. Even the delightfully villainous Ma King-sang lives to scheme another day. Would the Bruce Lee or Cheung Tin-chi characters then be picking up where this story has left off?