REVIEW: ‘Master Z: Ip Man Legacy’ Improves on the Franchise While Respecting its Legacy

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Master Z: Ip Man

Written by Edmond Wong  and Chan Tai Lee, and directed by Yuen Woo Ping, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy opens with a montage of Cheung Tin-Chi’s (Max Zhang) defeat at the hand of Wing Chun master, Ip Man (Donnie Yen) in Ip Man 3 (2015). In Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, after suffering what he sees as a disgraceful and humiliating loss, Tin-Chi left Shanghai and his dream of running his own Wing Chun school. In order to raise his son Feng, he became a fighter for hire. However, he becomes disillusioned with martial arts as a whole and he turns his back on that as well, opting to live an ordinary life. But, as fate would have it, that dream is cut short.

Tin Chi is picks up a toy music box of Feng’s favorite superhero (who bares a striking resemblance to Batman), Julia (Yan Liu) is paying a debt her friend Nana (Chrissie Chau) owes to local opium dealer Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng). When Julia and Nana try to leave Sai Kit, he tells the women that they owe him more money, but Julia isn’t having that and proceeds to engage in a fight with Sai Kit’s thugs. 

I liked this scene for two reasons. First, it was completely unexpected. Second, it’s the first time in the Ip Man series we see a female character openly confronting and challenging men who are being antagonistic and threatening, in defense of another woman. As Julia and Nana try to get away, they collide with Tin Chi’s cart, leaving him to become involved in their fight when Sai Kit damages Feng’s gift. He then proceeds to beat the entire lot of them. However, as expected, Sai Kit doesn’t appreciate being embarrassed in front of his crew, leading him to burn the store in retaliation, injuring Feng in the process. Refusing to let this attempt on his life slide, Tin Chi goes after Sai Kit, and thus begins his interactions with Sai Kit and his inner circle, which consists of his older sister Ngan Kwan (Michelle Yeoh) the head of the city’s largest crime syndicate, and Owen Davidson (Dave Bautista) a drug dealing restaurateur and would-be philanthropist.

Julia offers to take Tin Chi and Feng into her home which she shares with Nana, and Julia’s brother Fu (Xing Yu). From here, the plot and some of its characters become a tad predictable. Davidson is your typical arrogant gangster who relies more on brawn than smarts to overwhelm his opponents. Unfortunately, I think the reason this character comes across as being a bit flat has more to do with Bautista’s acting, rather than the writing.

Audiences have become more familiar with him in Marvel’s Guardians of The Galaxy series. There, he plays the socially inept alien Drax, whose awkwardness Bautista plays almost effortlessly. But as Davidson, Bautista seems kind of stiff and even unsure of himself. Leaving me to wonder if that has to do with the lack of visual effects makeup which helps to get him in character, much like the costumes he used to wear as a pro wrestler.

What saves Master Z is of course the superb fighting scenes, Zhang’s portrayal of a father trying to do the best he can for his son, and a sub-plot about Ngan Kwan’s efforts to extricate herself from her criminal past, and become a legitimate businesswoman. As always, Michelle Yeoh is captivating in whatever role she plays, and watching her command a room full of men, reminding them why she’s the one in charge will never be boring.

Of course, I have to mention one of my favorite scenes in the entire movie: the now famous glass scene that takes place between Ngan Kwan and Tin Chi in Fu’s bar, where he now works. Yes, this scene is sexy and there’s no denying it, but as the first interaction between them, the use of a glass filed with liquor is a subtle but effective way to demonstrate how two characters can have a complete conversation separate from the words they’re actually saying.

There are some callbacks to various martial arts films and the Ip Man series in particular, such as the famed “One Punch” move that Master Ip used in Ip Man 3,  Tin Chi telling his former boss he could take him out in seven paces (which was ten paces in Hero by Zhang Yimou), and my personal favorite, the ‘tree top’ fight sequence in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—  for which Master Z director Yuen Woo Ping did the fight choreography. This sequence was interesting because it showed how martial arts as a fight style, allows the practitioners to adapt to their surroundings, and allows directors and choreographers to showcase this in new ways.

As a director and fight choreographer Yuen has been in the film industry for over fifty years, with his work on films such as The Matrix and Kung Fu Hustle making him a legend. As expected, the fight sequences in Master Z are just as beautiful and vicious as any he’s done before. Though there wasn’t much use of wire-fu, the utilization of weapons and props make each fight interesting and intense.

I saw the mirroring of the ‘tree top’ fight, in Tin Chi’s fight amongst the neon signs of Bar Street, not only as an homage to Crouching Tiger, but also a visual representation of the struggle of martial artist to keep their art form alive, in a society that has become more modern, with it and people moving further away from traditional values. While I could be reading too much into this one particular fight sequence, I don’t think the possibility is too far-fetched when the context of all the Ip Man films, and his personal story are to be taken into account.

One element that has remained constant throughout the series, has been Master Ip’s goal to use Wing Chun as a means for the Chinese people to stay connected to their heritage, especially when foreign forces belittle and try to strip it away. Master Z shows this brilliantly, especially in the last fight between Tin Chi and Davidson. Like David fighting Goliath — and Ip Man fighting Western opponents —Tin Chi realizes that the tools to defeating his foe, lies not in who’s bigger or who packs the heaviest punch, but who has the heart, self-confidence, and ability to use both to adapt without losing sight of who he is in order to win.

While some may see Master Z: Ip Man Legacy as a typical period martial arts film, to me it’s anything but. Yes, it’s not a perfect film. For instance I wish Julia had been given the opportunity to be involved in more of the action scenes since it was proven she could handle herself. But what the writers, and Yuen, have done is create a spin-off film that not only improves the franchise (which is very rare), but also justifies the need for additional films that stay true to the story created with the first movie, and respects the legacy.

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy
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TL;DR

While some may see Master Z: Ip Man Legacy as a typical period martial arts film, to me it’s anything but. Yes, it’s not a perfect film…But what the writers, and Yuen, have done is create a spin-off film that not only improves the franchise (which is very rare), but also justifies the need for additional films that stay true to the story created with the first movie, and respects the legacy.