Ip Man: Kung Fu Master is the latest entry in a number of various series chronicling the life of Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man. This might also be the weakest of depictions full of sloppy choreography, unnecessary wire work, and a fragmented story that should have been Ramen-noodle-simple but was instead as complex as fugu preparation. Dennis To plays the role with charisma and honor, which is unfortunately wasted on this Saturday afternoon Kung Fu Theater special.
Set during his time as a police captain, Ip Man is on the path to become a full-on Wing Chun master. He becomes involved with a hostile Japanese agent who is seeking to pave a way for the oncoming invasion. Torn between his duties as a police officer and his responsibilities as a martial artist committed to the Foshan community, Ip fights a wronged clan, and eventually the Japanese themselves.
The plot cannot decide what it wants to be: a historical action piece or a silly crime drama. Characters are introduced, and then rudely dropped, without reason or development. Even the time period is largely obscure; timelessly in limbo somewhere between the 1930s and Morpheus’ Matrix. Kung Fu Master is as haphazard as the drunken boxing style with considerably less grace.
Dennis To is a great martial arts action star. He moves with precision, fights with a smile, and has range enough to show loving care for his burgeoning family. As Ip Man, To brings honor to the role but the storytelling certainly does not give much to play with. Is he a master? A student? Police? A masked man? There is no cause, only action as a form of reaction, which certainly does not make a compelling narrative. He has fun chemistry with a few of the supporting players: Michael Wong plays a cool mobster who exits entirely too soon; Wanliruo Xin plays the mobster’s heir and injects a strong female presence to the story. Mostly, these characters present awkward dialogue within the pauses between each fight.
As with any genre there are stories that elevate the style while many others are simply slaves to the commonality of those machinations. Directed by Liming Li, Kung Fu Master is a generic output. Unexplainable feats of superhuman strength; exaggerated hi-speed action; monotonous slo-mo; one man up against an army with only his hands and a smile. Every presented beat has been hit by countless drummers and most of them in more memorable ways.
One particular action scene, a training session with Ip Man and Wing Chun Master Leung Jan, is playful. The two combatants banter and pass around a jug of sake in between their dancing footwork. This fleeting moment showed the potential the movie could have been in a disarrayed narrative. There is plenty of action, which can be thrilling to younger eyes, yet nothing within is truly lasting or revolutionary.
Ip Man: Kung Fu Master plays out in a series of barely-connected events and bland kung fu battles. Dennis To seems to work best in those intimate moments of combat when his feet and hands clap with power. However, he is all too mute when being forced to encapsulate Liming Li’s vision of Ip as a rallying cry for Chinese unification.