Straight off — I know very little about martial arts master Ip Man (here played by Anthony Wong) and not a great deal more about the ins and outs of martial arts movies. (Hint: if it didn’t go mainstream or at least art house, I probably haven’t seen it.) I know that Ip Man was the fellow who taught Bruce Lee martial arts and that’s about it. In other words, I have no clue whether this is an accurate biopic or just so much fiction (or a mix of both). I do know that it’s a curious film that probably isn’t exactly what most action fans are looking for. Though the film certainly has some elaborate fight sequences, The Final Fight is a look at the master in his final years — think of it as Twilight of Ip Man — and is more a frequently elegant drama than an outright action movie. I don’t want to short-sell its action — which is blessedly free of slow-motion and impossible wire-work stunts — but viewers should know that this is more a personal drama than not.
The Final Fight is also nothing if not reverential in its treatment of Ip Man — probably too much so. If there’s any dirt to be dished about Ip, you’re not going to find it here. The man we see is close to a kind of saint — and a pretty stoic one at that. He suffers disappointment and loss, as well as joy, with very little change of expression. Oddly, this becomes effective. The longer we deal with Mr. Wong’s performance, the more we come to be attuned to the marvelous subtlety of his playing. There is both dignity and heartbreak just beneath the surface.
The story is fairly episodic, sketching Ip’s years in Hong Kong, which are marked by the rise of communist China, resulting in his inability to return to the mainland and the inability of his wife, Wing Sing (Anita Yuen), to come to him, since she had returned to the mainland to raise their son. (Her death — relayed to him over the phone by his son — is one of the film’s most touching scenes.) The later portions of the film deal with his subsequent relationship with a nightclub singer, Jenny (Zhang Chuchu), which is handled with what can only be called extreme tastefulness. There’s actually as much drama concerning his students’ rejection of the relationship, as there is the relationship itself.
There is a final fight — and it’s pretty spectacular and undeniably tense — but the title seems to refer to a broader fight about Ip’s efforts to preserve his dignity and his values in the face of a changing, often corrupt world. Visually, the film is a treat with its gliding camerawork, bright colors and fascinating period detail. This is not a great film by any means, but it’s certainly a sumptuous one that’s very entertaining. Rated PG-13 for martial arts violence and some drug material.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas