IP MAN 3 Review: Of Masters And Men

Confession. I got a thing about legends. About legendary people who walked this earth, who had humble, otherwise ordinary beginnings (and perhaps, where some are concerned, lived their entire lives under the premise of this deceptive obscurity only to enjoy posthumous historical glory) but went on to achieve so much during their time on this Earth that their influence spans out for generations and generations, influencing culture (multi-culture) as it appears before us today – indeed, every day; a nameless, faceless, unisex deity.

We just lost Prince, you see. Bare with me. For it is with a great deal of procrastination, anticipation, and fastidious intent that I arrive before Ip Man 3 for perusal and review; like watching the Beetles getting together, an artistic unity between producer Raymond Wong, writer Edmond Wong, action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, a living legend in his own right, and director Wilson Yip to conclude the trilogy about the man known to most only as the old master who taught Bruce Lee Wing Chun.

The first two films in the series were warmly received, as Donnie Yen has made a mark in his film career for bringing the operatic to the table. The true grit. The underlying spirit of martial arts, similar in many ways to what Bruce Lee was cut short doing with his own auteuristic endeavor in cinema. The film begins with the tranquility of an empty dojo. We find Ip practicing on his wooden dummy, his advance in years and wisdom both held in the lines of his face. The year is 1959, and Ip Man is settling into a peaceful life in Hong Kong with his wife Cheung Wing-Sing and his youngest son Ip Ching.

Kenji Kawai’s monumental score, The Maestro, that has provided the series its soundtrack returns for the finale, in a gradual fade-in to squire Ip’s focus and poise. It’s a great track, consummate in its simplicity, and one of the few things – besides the excellently choreographed and energetic fights that are a staple of Donnie Yen’s work - that I hoped, prepensely, would return to help wrap things up.

No disappointment on any of that. My hat is off (and hung up on a coat hanger!)

“It’s lonely at the top.”
Ip is visited by a young and eager Bruce Lee, played by Danny Chan with impressive grace and personality, looking to train under the master in Kung Fu. Ip challenges him to a speed test and even after Bruce springs into a grand display of artistry, the master smiles and opens the door, young Bruce interpreting this as yet another refusal to teach him.

I will admit that I expected this film to be about that relationship, as the last one ended with an even younger Bruce Lee breaking into the final scene like a mid credit teaser, as brazen and ostentatious as ever. But it’s not about that, as all the promotional material playing up the Ip Man vs Mike Tyson fight would suggest. And I’ll make another admission, I was...iffy about that aspect of the movie.

“Put thum rethpek on my name!”
Nothing against Iron Mike, mind you. I’ve enjoyed his performances in his scattered pilgrimages in film, and was at once intrigued by the concept; American boxing versus traditional Wing Chun. But we got that in Ip Man 2 with the late Darren Shahlavi’s memorable role as Twister, and, well, the spectacle of Tyson versus Ip Man seemed to be an idea straying a little too far into the realm of fantasy and legend and away from the balance the series had hitherto nurtured between that and the historical record. But my concerns were put to rest when the story Edmond Wong constructed around Frank, Tyson’s character, an American property developer, unraveled before us on the screen.

They kept apace with the history, adding a foliate to the proceedings by way a subplot involving Cheung Wing-Sing’s failing health as well as bookened scenes bringing us back to the bustling up of the famous relationship between Ip Man and his greatest student, Bruce Lee. That speed test scene, it bears a reference to Bruce Lee’s later philosophy on being like water. Ip makes a subtle point about learning to overcome the impulsiveness of youth in having him kick at water. It’s not an exaggeration to describe the scene as grandiloquent, an avowal to Kenny Tse’ cinematography. There is some play with the chronology of the story that a casual viewer might not catch. Such as the reference in the opening scene, when Ip Man is working on the dummy. A butterfly flutters into the room and lands gently atop the dummy. There is a solemn look on Ip Man’s face, going with those lines I mentioned earlier. It would bear mention at this point that the butterfly in Chinese mythology signifies the return of a loved one. It could easily be a reference to Ip’s sentiments at the time regarding his eldest son, or to a later tragedy covered in further detail in yet another film about Ip Man, The Grandmaster starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai.

The good news about Ip Man 3? The good news is that the marketing campaign was a lie. It is not about that inevitable fight between Ip Man and ...Frank. Tyson’s role in this film is to provide the narrative’s plat du jour, but the central conflict is actually yet another subplot that is introduced earlier in the film, shortly after that meeting with young Bruce.

“Be like water, my friend. But when you can’t, be like Iron Mike.”
Ip Ching gets into a fight at school with another boy, Cheung Fung. Ip goes to collect his son and, as an apology to Fung’s father who could not show up on time to pick up his own son, takes both the boys home with him for dinner. Fung’s father, Cheung Tin-chi, arrives at the Ip household where both fathers, practitioners of Wing Chun, express respect for one another and encourage their boys to do the same. It’s the kind of scene that would make master Gichin Funakoshi smile, as one is reminded of the timelessness of the old man’s words, when he said, “The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.”

Off topic a bit, the above quote, being from the founder of Karate-Do and not the discipline showcased in this film, but appropriate still not only as a literary explanation of what is happening in this scene, but as exegesis for the foundational tenets that link traditional martial arts like a referential yardstick.

It is offered as background that Tin-chi is a low level laborer who dreams of achieving prestige in Wing Chun, and we find him soon after his introduction participating in black market boxing matches. At this point we meet the organizer, American property developer Frank, who is the spearhead of an operation to acquire land on Chinese soil. It’s another one of those things that makes it into many of Donnie Yen’s films, the metaphor of early imperialism as Western missionaries and traders sought to aggressively breach the borders of both China and Japan for trade, by force if necessary, and assimilate the culture.

Twister, from the previous film, represented American greed, arrogance, aggression. And this time Mike Tyson’s Frank, the “foreign devil”, fills that role. But I’m happy to report that it is done differently this time around.

A local triad leader, Ma King-sang, works for Frank and runs the black market boxing circuit that Tin-chi frequents for extra cash to make ends meet. At the behest of Frank, Ma exploits Tin-chi’s poverty to enlist him in putting pressure on the school headmaster where his son and Ip’s son attend so that Frank can see to a deal to acquire the land for development.

Ip Man’s voluntary involvement to protect the school headmaster from Ma’s thugs put him into the advertized conflict with Frank, but it’s the exploitation of Tin-chi’s poverty that sets in motion the conflict the film will explore in its conclusion.

The fight scenes in this movie are off the chain. It’s hard to believe that Donnie Yen is 53 years old and moving with the speed and dexterity of a 20 year old. The display of Wing Chun is noted. They even do chi sao in some of the fights, man! It’s a joy to behold.

But something Ip Man says while meeting with local masters early in the film, a reference to honor and, again, to the foundation of martial arts, sums up the defining theme of the movie. Indeed, the defining theme of the lifelong pursuit of a devoted martial arts practitioner. He says, “The world’s not fair. But moral standards apply to all. The ruler isn’t always a superior person. And the ruled isn’t always inferior. The world doesn’t belong to the rich or even the powerful, but to those of pure heart.”

Khalil Barnett is a martial arts practioner living in Florida, and is also a filmmaker, writer, producer and actor starring in the independent action drama series, The Way, and co-creator of upcoming indie action short, Santos. Visit the official Facebook page for more info.


  1. I am intrigued. I have never seen these movies, and now I must watch. thank you for bringing this to life for me! and I love your use of vocabulary. I wish more writers were as fearless with vocabulary. bravo!

  2. Thank you again, Lori! I appreciate you as one of my few readers. :)


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