A portrait of the martial artist as an old man, “Ip Man: The Final Fight” is nowhere near as bellicose as its title suggests. There are several clashes in the latest cinematic sketch of the kung fu master who trained Bruce Lee. But in one of them, Ip (Anthony Wong) and a rival fight to a draw by exchanging original, brush-written poems.
Ip Man, who died in 1972, has been the subject of five biopics since 2008, including Wong Kar-wai’s sumptuous “The Grandmaster.” None are rigorously accurate, but “The Final Fight” is less self-consciously mythic than the others. While taking liberties with Ip’s life, it tries to render accurately Hong Kong in the 1950s and ’60s.
Director Herman Yau, who also made 2010’s “The Legend Is Born: Ip Man,” comments on the mythmaking in an early scene. It’s 1949, and Ip has just moved from southern China to Hong Kong. He meets a chatty, callow man who wants a demonstration of Ip’s fighting style, Wing Chun. Ip stands on a newspaper and challenges the man to knock him off it. The youngster fails and Ip stays on top of the paper, symbolizing his desire to control his own story.
Later, however, a reporter watches when Ip defends a pretty young singer (Zhou Chuchu) who’s hassled while performing for tips at a night market. The journalist hypes his account so breathlessly that it turns into a parody of a kung fu movie, with Ip triumphantly airborne.
Yau and scripter Erica Lee depict a less omnipotent hero. Ip is a skilled teacher who attracts dedicated acolytes but can’t prevent them from using their skills for purposes he doesn’t approve of. Ip also can’t rescue his wife, who’s on the wrong side of the border when the Communists close the checkpoints. When Ip learns that a friend has sold his youngest child so he can afford food for the others, all the Wing Chun master can do is silently pour the distressed father another drink.
Poverty, labor strikes, police corruption and opium addiction are among the facts of Hong Kong life that Ip faces, often because of the actions of his students. He counsels discipline and restraint, but he occasionally gets drawn into his followers’ battles.
The showiest action sequence involves lion dancers who battle atop high wooden posts. The grittiest — and final — one sends Ip to save one of his former pupils, who’s risked fighting for money inside the gangster-controlled Kowloon Walled City. To add to the drama, the showdown occurs during a typhoon.
Wong, one of Hong Kong’s busiest character actors, expertly conveys Ip’s dignity and authority, as well as his loneliness and physical decline. The naturalism of Wong’s performance is undercut, however, by Yau’s use of phony-looking sets, sterile CGI and flashy aerial shots. As a character study, “Ip Man: The Final Fight” would be more convincing if it didn’t look so distractingly like a Hollywood musical.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
PG-13. At AMC Loews Rio 18. Contains kung fu violence, drug use and occasional profanity.
In Cantonese and English with subtitles.