Back in 2015, I sat beside a Malay lady in a darkened cinema anticipating for Ip Man 3 to begin and I was curious to find out if she had wandered into the wrong cinema. I remember asking: “You like Ip Man?” Her reply was an animated affirmative. When the movie ended, she was sniffling away, tears glistening in her eyes. In that moment I felt proud to be a Chinese. I looked up and noticed something – there was even an Indian couple among the audience. That was when I realised that there is a universality to Ip Man and in him we see the embodiment of the best of Asian values.

12 years a martial arts exponent, 4 movies, 3 spin-offs and it all comes to a rousing end. No, there’s no coda suggesting a forced extension of a successful franchise; there’s no passing of the mantle. Instead, there’s a finality to everything. There’s no more dignified way for a hero’s exit than this. Leaving the cinema, teary-eyed, I realised 12 years have whizzed by.

Ip Man 4 finds our eponymous Wing Chun hero receiving some bad news, which set up a chain of events that will make Ip Man (Donnie Yen)  journey to San Francisco (in real life it never happened). There, he will hook up with his disciple Bruce Lee (Kwok-Kwan Chan) and look for a school for his wayward son, Ip Ching. He will need a recommendation letter from Chinese Benevolent Association chairman Wan Zonghua (Wu Yue) who is a Taichi master. Ip doesn’t look for trouble, but trouble will find him in the form of the Taichi master and white racists who detest Chinese martial arts but somehow are alright with Japanese karate.

Ip Man 4 reunites director Wilson Yip Wai-shun with action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, and tells a rather unnecessary and contrived story. You know when a martial arts franchise is running out of ideas when the action centres on caucasians, worse when you see the foreigners try to speak mandarin.Thankfully, the appearance of caucasians don’t feel out of place here and no one tries to speak mandarin, but they do get the short end of the stick with convenient heavy-handed racist white-wash. 

But seriously, nobody goes to see a Ip Man movie looking for a compelling story. From the previous movie in which Donnie Yen fought Mike Tyson, you know a plausible plot is no longer important. One goes to a Ip Man movie to see Donnie Yen, with a mien of pacificism, wipe the floor with arrogant martial arts exponents who think Wing Chun is a joke. In this aspect, the movie hits a home run. The fights are gorgeously choreographed. Every entry has a few memorable fights and I am sure at this point you are already visualising the “I want to fight ten” dojo fight, the round table top fight with Sammo Hung, the 3-minute Mike Tyson one and for me, the staircase fight with the Muay Thai fighter. This final film has some memorable fights with a Taichi master, a karate master and a crazy drill sergeant played by Scott Adkins who seems to be channeling the one in Full Metal Jacket. It is a memorable final fight that juxtaposes brute strength with graceful agility. One already knows who will come up tops, but it is still a thrill to see it.

The franchise knows Donnie Yen, cutting a figure of humility and superhuman fighting ability, is the main focus, so much so that Bruce Lee is relegated to one pedestrian street brawl, a demonstration of the one-inch punch and the two-finger push-up. The role fits Donnie Yen to a T and it made him a global superstar. Quiet and understated in nature, Ip Man doesn’t scream jingoistic slogans, but when there is a need to educate the masses in Chinese pride, he is the perfect teacher.

Not counting the TV series, there are three actors who have played the Wing Chun grandmaster, but the role belongs to Donnie Yen. Ip Man 4 may feel unnecessary, but just to be given a chance to see Ip go mano a mano against other kungfu masters, I totally embraced it. The story here may be contrived, the plot predictable and the characters crudely drawn, but when the camera is on the titular hero, he fills the frame with his quiet humility and resolute spirit. He will be sorely missed.

Rating: 3,5 / 5

Written by Daniel Chiam.