Rating: 3 stars out of 5
No matter what you want to call it, whether it's Ip Man: The Legend is Born, or The Legend is Born: Ip Man – depending on which movie poster you read – or even Young Ip Man, this is just what you expect a prequel of two successful Ip Man films to be like.
It has a simple plot, one that purports to reveal the formative years of Wing Chun martial arts master Ip Man and contains a frivolous love quadrangle (a four-sided love triangle), sinister Japanese provocateurs as pantomime villains, and plenty of furious kungfu action.
This may be the first film in this fruitful franchise – additional films are expected – without kungfu icon Donnie Yen, but rest assured, there are enough blink-and-you'll-miss-it fight scenes, choreographed and performed at the highest level, to satiate ardent fans.
Yen's charisma and intense presence as the series' titular hero is lacking here, even though real-life wushu champion Dennis To, as a more youthful Ip Man, bears enough of a passing resemblance to be believable in the role.
For all his amiability, however, To is a limited actor, with perhaps two discernible facial expressions that convey blithely pleasant (smile) and determined/in deep concentration/angry (frown).
But it matters little that there's little awards-worthy acting here. The film has been made just well enough for it to pass as a rare mid-year example of Asian popcorn entertainment.
The script is sprinkled with moments of light comedy, amid a little debate over the legitimacy of various fighting styles to be considered ‘Wing Chun’, and continues the operatically nationalistic tone carried over from the first two films – in other words, no foreigner who disrespects China and Chinese martial arts is left unpunished.
There's also a special, rather delightful cameo by Ip Chun, the octogenarian eldest son of Ip Man, who plays Master Leung Pik, the man who inspired a school of Wing Chun that differed from the more traditional form.
The film starts at the 'beginning', as far as the film-makers are concerned, with Ip's father bringing him to Foshan to learn martial arts from master Chan Wah Shun (Sammo Hung), the head of the Wing Chun academy.
Chan espouses the practice of Wing Chun to such an extent that one does not require to see in order to fight; one has the Force-like ability to 'feel' the opponent's presence and intentions. Who else but young Ip Man to take this lesson to heart?
Joining Ip at the academy is his adopted brother Tin Chi (Fan Siu-Wong), who strangely does not betray any note of sibling rivalry despite good reason; Ip is the superior kungfu master and the object of affection for Mei-wai (Rose Chan), whom Tin Chi covets.
The final player in the aforementioned love quadrangle is a privileged young lady, Wing Shing, played by Chinese actress Huang Yi. In tussling over Ip, Chan and Huang provide charming moments of levity.
Together with Chinese Canadian beauty Bernice Liu, as a swashbuckling Japanese agent, the trio of actresses are the roses among the thorns here; eye candy for interested viewers during the few moments when the plot sags.
Compared to Ip Man and the inferior Ip Man 2, this is highly forgettable fare. But for what it is, a stop-gap to earn a few dollars and tide fans over until Yen reprises his role yet again, it is a feature that packs just about an adequate punch.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!"
– Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part III