It’s fitting that as this decade comes to a close, we’ve seen the (temporary) conclusions of blockbuster franchises like Avengers and Star Wars (at least the Skywalker saga). As we approach the end of 2019, the year is giving us one more film finale – the conclusion of arguably the greatest martial arts film saga ever in Ip Man 4: The Finale. Starring Donnie Yen in the titular role, the Ip Man franchise not only elevated Yen’s already substantial stardom to new levels internationally, but also produced several hugely successful martial arts films during a period where the genre’s popularity was in question.
The original Ip Man film was released in 2008. Nobody could have known at that time that it would spawn a true film franchise, inspiring 3 direct sequels and a spin-off film, spanning over a decade. For Donnie Yen, who was already a Hong Kong superstar at that point, Ip Man presented a unique starring vehicle that showcased not only his exceptional martial arts abilities, but also his emotional acting and charisma.
Ip Man 4: The Finale was tasked with a near impossible challenge. How do you provide a satisfying conclusion to the fictionalized life story of a martial arts icon whose legend had grown exponentially as a result of this very film franchise? Further, beyond the story itself, there was a genuine question as to whether the film could present martial arts fight choreography in new and fresh ways. Spoilers below!
At the end of Ip Man 3, Ip Man’s wife got sick and passed away. Ip Man 4 picks up several years later in 1964, when we see an older Ip Man (Donnie Yen) raising a young teen son who is filled with resentment towards his father and can’t stay out of trouble in school. Ip Man himself is diagnosed with terminal cancer, prompting him to rush to figure out a way to prepare his son for life after he passes. Ip Man gets a note from his most famous student, Bruce Lee (Danny Chan), inviting him to San Francisco, CA to watch him in a martial arts tournament. I enjoyed the bit of creative liberty here with Bruce Lee’s story. While it’s true that Lee made waves in the martial arts community with a demonstration at a major tournament, the actual tournament took place in Long Beach, CA, not San Francisco, and certainly not in front of Ip Man. Still, it was a nice connection to real life events.
Ip Man travels to San Francisco intent on finding a school for his son in the land of opportunity. To do so he needs a recommendation letter from the locally established leaders in San Francisco’s Chinatown. First, he visits Lee at the tournament, where Lee is challenged by several white martial artists who apparently don’t believe Lee is legit. Lee casually tells his master that it happens all the time and puts the smack down on everyone, culminating in an entertainingly stylized fight where he, of course, shows off his nunchuck skills. This early scene is the most we see of Lee, who is used sparingly in the rest of the film.
Ip Man then goes to see the leaders of the San Francisco Chinatown community, which consist of several martial arts masters of different forms, led by Tai Chi master Chairman Wan (Yue Wu). Ip Man expects a friendly meeting only to be met with so much disrespect by the Chinatown masters that I cringed. They’re upset that Ip Man’s student, Bruce Lee, is teaching Chinese martial arts to Americans. This was another nice plot point based on real life events, as Lee reportedly faced quite a bit of criticism during his time for just that reason. Chairman Wan says he’s happy to give Ip Man a rec letter if he’ll stop his student from teaching Americans. Ip Man refuses and leaves with his integrity. Instead Ip Man gets a letter from one of Lee’s students and visits a school where Chairman Wan’s own daughter, Yonah (Vanda Margraf), is excelling as a cheerleader, but also getting bullied by a jealous white racist cheerleader, Becky (the hilariously appropriate name of the character was not lost on me). Becky and a bunch of white racist bros push Yonah around when Ip Man intervenes. Grateful, Yonah takes Ip Man back to her father and urges him to give Ip Man the much needed rec letter (the other letter was deemed unacceptable). Unsurprisingly, Chairman Wan isn’t pleased with these turn of events and challenges Ip Man to a match. The two spar fairly evenly until their match is broken up by a timely SF earthquake.
Elsewhere, another one of Lee’s students, Hartman Wu (Van Ness), is also a Marine who wants to share his native Wing Chun with his American colleagues. Unfortunately, his drill sergeant, Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins) and fight coach Collins Frater (Chris Collins), are super racist and yet strangely committed to only using Japanese Karate. Geddes says he’ll give Wing Chun a chance if Hartman can prove its value by besting Frater. Given that Hartman is neither Bruce Lee nor Ip Man, that fight doesn’t go well as Frater smacks Hartman around. That insult to Chinese martial arts isn’t enough, as Frater later interrupts the annual Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival to challenge and beat down each of the other Chinatown masters. This is a bit of a strange moment because I’m pretty sure Chris Collins is part Asian, but his character Frater hurls anti-Asian insults at the Chinatown masters. Of course Ip Man has to step in and we finally get to see Collins’ face get some personal instruction on Chinese Wing Chun.
While that’s happening, Becky goes home crying to her racist parents. Her dad just so happens to work for ICE (sounds about right) and tracks down Chairman Wan and detains him for
being Chinese harboring illegal immigrants. The rest of the Chinatown leaders must go underground and seek refuge with Bruce Lee, who graciously takes them in. Geddes shows up at the ICE facility and takes over custody of Wan because he needs to beat him up as retribution for Ip Man’s fight against Frater.
This all leads us back to the Marine base where Geddes and Chairman Wan face off. Wan puts up a good fight, but ultimately Geddes gives him a brutal beating. Once again, Ip Man has to come to the rescue of Wan, Wing Chun and all of China. This final fight between Yen and Adkins is highly stylized but well done, and of course Ip Man comes out on top, leading to cheers by the very diverse group of Marine cadets.
Later, Chairman Wan gratefully presents Ip Man with the letter of recommendation. However, these events have taught Ip Man that the grass isn’t necessarily greener in the U.S. and he goes back to China to reconcile with his son and teach him the ways of Wing Chun. As the film ends, Ip Man, knowing he doesn’t have much time left, tells his son to film him as he demonstrates the intricacies of Wing Chun so that his instruction to his son will endure beyond his life. It’s a sweet yet heart-wrenching end to the film and the Ip Man saga.
Satisfying Ending – It’s not easy to end a saga. We’ve seen various films try to do it this year with varied levels of success. Especially with martial arts films being typically light on plot and character development, there isn’t often too much to work with. That’s why most martial arts films don’t even have sequels, let alone 4 films (and a spin-off). The Ip Man franchise is special, and will always have a unique place in the pantheon of iconic martial arts films. Ip Man 4 ends the saga in an emotionally satisfying way, and that’s really all you can ask for in a final film. We’ve seen Ip Man go from a wealthy resident in China to fighting Japanese occupation, struggling to make ends meet, reestablishing himself with his own school of martial arts and here we see him support the Chinese who immigrated to the United States and finally pass on his teachings to his son. It’s been a thrilling journey and I think Ip Man fans will be pleased with this final story.
Emotional Weight – In most martial arts films, most of the plot points exist just to get to the next cool fight. Being that this is the 4th film in the saga, it was a tall order to bring something new in that realm. Smartly, Director Wilson Yip (who directed each of the previous 3 films) and the rest of the creative team decided to go a more emotional route. While there’s certainly some exciting martial arts fighting in the film, I was surprised by the emotional weight that came not just from Ip Man’s terminal condition, but also from the larger diaspora experience being played out. We see the Chinese immigrants struggling with racism, we see the struggle between first generation immigrant parents and their second generation children, and we see the inherent conflict between immigrant philosophies on whether to share or protect their traditions. It’s not a common occurrence to see a martial arts film deal with these types of issues, and while they’re not analyzed in-depth, it was still a welcome surprise to see them at all.
Bruce Lee – When you get a chance to use a legendary figure like Bruce Lee in your story, the easy thing to do is either make him a caricature (hi QT) or overuse him even when it doesn’t make sense with the story. I’m happy to say that neither was the case here. Lee has one feature fight early in the film and that’s the extent of his fight scenes. Instead, he’s seen trying to help his master secure a letter of rec for his son and later generously taking in the Chinatown masters who had previously scorned him. There’s a great moment when Lee is personally tending to the wounds of one of the masters and the master gets half way through an apology before Lee tells him there’s no need. Unlike other recent depictions of Lee in pop culture, it was nice to see him here as an actual person trying to help his fellow Chinese.
One Note Villains – Again, this is a martial arts film, so there’s only so much room for nuance. Having said that, the U.S. Marine villains are truly one-note villains who are essentially comic book caricatures. Collins and Adkins play their roles well and deliver every racist insult and sneer with mustache twirling flair, but don’t look for much depth in their characters. Collins and Adkins exist on screen to be the most obnoxious racists they can be so that every punch that Ip Man lands is that much more satisfying. On one hand, they accomplished what they clearly sought out to do. On the other, they are a bit over the top in their depictions.
Less Focus on Fighting – We don’t see Ip Man literally throw hands until about 45 minutes into the film. That has to be some sort of record for the franchise. In many ways, it makes sense that an older and wiser Ip Man is less focused on physical solutions to problems than he was in the previous films, and I do think this was a conscious decision by Yen and Yip. But there’s a certain level of expectation that many viewers have when watching a film like Ip Man, so I can imagine some disappointment with the frequency of action. To be sure, there are still several highlights over the course of the story, including Lee’s fight early on and the battle between Frater and the Chinatown masters. However, compared to the 4 other Ip Man films, this one has probably the weakest fight choreography in terms of innovation and excitement.
American Racism – Throughout the film, I found myself wondering how American audiences will experience the story. As I mentioned above, the issue of anti-Chinese racism by Americans is a central theme, the Americans are largely one-dimensional villains and you really don’t see any Caucasians with redeeming qualities. The irony of course is that this story takes place in the 1960s and yet you can easily see this type of overt racism in 2019 America. The film ends with Ip Man realizing that America really isn’t all it’s purported to be and decides to keep his son in China. His decision is very reasonable within the context of the story, but it’s a perspective that American audiences aren’t used to seeing in their entertainment. I’ll be curious to see if there’s a backlash to the storyline.
Rating – 4/5 Pocky
Ip Man 4: The Finale premieres in the United States on December 25th via Well Go USA!
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.