Ip Man: Kung Fu Master is the latest film to portray the legendary grandmaster of Wing Chun Kung Fu, Ip Man, the real life teacher of Bruce Lee who lived from 1983 to 1972. All the films have been heavily fictionalized, and the Ip Man film franchise is far from unified. There have been multiple actors, directors and filmmakers featuring Ip Man, and this new film is independent from all of those, although confusingly enough, it’s very connected.
The most prominent Ip Man franchise stars Donnie Yen. It began in 2008 with Ip Man and retained the same core team for four installments: directed by Wilson Yip, produced by Raymond Wong, and written by Edmond Wong.
Yip and Yen collaborated in some previous critically acclaimed martial arts films like Kill Zone (aka SPL: Sha Po Lang), Dragon Tiger Gate, and Flashpoint – all of which were well regarded for their high octane action and brutally satisfying fight choreography. Those collaborations set up the success of their first Ip Man film, and it’s noteworthy that Yip and Ip are different romanizations of the same Chinese character, meaning that although not directly related, Wilson Yip shares surnames with Ip Man.
The four films were major box office hits in Asia, resulting in the production of several other Ip Man films that rode the coattails of its success. Since Ip Man is a historic figure, his character is somewhat in the public domain. And while it’s best to have the blessing of the family estate, as was seen with Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, it’s not necessary. After what was perceived as a negative portrayal of Bruce Lee, Lee’s daughter Shannon protested to the press, which only resulted in Tarantino’s film getting more publicity. Bruce Lee is also depicted in several of the Ip Man films because their legends are intimately connected and it’s unclear if those characterizations were condoned by the Lee estate.
Wilson Yip’s Ip Man films tell a linear story in four chapters. After the first film, each successive sequel featured Donnie Yen facing outstanding martial adversaries: Sammo Hung in Ip Man 2, Mike Tyson in Ip Man 3, and Scott Adkins in Ip Man 4. The films follow Ip Man’s life very loosely until the final film where Ip Man travels to San Francisco to visit Bruce Lee, an event which never happened. The last installment came out last year and it was the final film by this core team, ending with Lee attending Ip Man’s funeral (another event that never happened).
There was a spin-off to this series, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, which fits in between the 3rd and 4th films. It starred Max Zhang reprising his role as Ip Man’s rival from Ip Man 3, Cheung Tin-chi, and featured Michelle Yeoh in a triumphant return to the Kung Fu genre, and Dave Bautista as the villain. Knowing that the fourth would be the last, it was an attempt to keep the golden goose alive. Produced by Raymond Wong and Donnie Yen, and written by Edmond Wong, Wilson Yip stepped down as director, passing the chair to the King of Kung Fu choreography, Yuen Woo-Ping. Master Z: Ip Man Legacy was a good film, so there’s some hope there.
In the latest entry, Ip Man: Kung Fu Master, the titular role is played by Dennis To. To had minor roles in Donnie Yen’s Ip Man and Ip Man 2 playing two different characters, Hu Wei and Cheng Wai-Kei respectively. After that, he was cast as Ip Man in The Legend is Born – Ip Man because he bore a resemblance to Donnie Yen. This film wasn’t connected to Wilson Yip’s productions. It was directed by Herman Yau, written by Erica Lee and produced by Sin Kwok-Lam. Nevertheless, several cast members from Yip’s franchise from his films appear in the film beyond To. Sammo Hung, Louis Fan, and Chen Zhihui have roles in The Legend is Born – Ip Man, although as different characters from those they played in Yip’s films. What’s more, Ip Man’s real-life son, Ip Chun appears in the film.
After The Legend is Born – Ip Man, Yau followed it up three years later with Ip Man: The Final Fight. Erica Lee served as writer again, but it had different producers. Veteran Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong took the titular role as an elderly Ip Man, and Timmy Hung, Sammo’s son, also appears. Ip Chun makes another cameo in a different role from the previous film. That’s a sure way to get the blessing of the family estate.
There was one other notable Ip Man film, The Grandmaster, from internationally acclaimed director Wong Kar-wai. Tony Leung plays Ip Man, and this film was Hong Kong’s submission for Best Foreign Language film at the 86th Academy Awards. It made the shortlist for that category but in the end, it failed to make the final cut. However, it did get Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design and received numerous other distinguished international film awards.
The Grandmaster was a sumptuous film from the Cannes Film Festival Best Director that elevated Ip Man from typical Kung Fu movie fodder to global arthouse fare. Starring opposite Leung was China’s global diva Zhang Ziyi in a return to the martial genre after starring in films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Rush Hour 2, and House of Flying Daggers nearly a decade prior.
Beyond the lavish brooding style that’s such a signature of Wong Kar-wai films, the fight choreography was taken to new heights. Leung, a Cannes Best Actor, broke his arm from the rigorous training early in production. Training had begun a year and a half prior to filming. Master choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping was calling the shots.
The opening fight scene pitted Leung against real-life MMA champion Cung Le in a gorgeous slow-motion fight in the rain. The scene took 40 nights to shoot and has been emulated repeatedly throughout martial arts films ever since. There’s even a nodding homage rain fight in Ip Man: Kung Fu Master. Wong Kar-wai, ever the auteur, released three different cuts of The Grandmaster.
Donnie Yen versus Dennis To
Donnie Yen is a Hong Kong A-lister with nearly 80 film credits to his name, including several Hollywood films like Rogue One and xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. He’s been making movies since the 80s and was raised in Boston, so his English is perfect.
Dennis To was born and raised in Hong Kong and has just over a dozen films to his credit. However, his martial competitive record is outstanding having won several world titles.
Both Donnie Yen and Dennis To began as Wushu practitioners. Wushu is a sport version of Kung Fu that China hoped to add to the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. It is the gymnastic style that Jet Li practices. Ip Man was a leading exponent of Wing Chun, a traditional style of Kung Fu.
As Chinese martial arts styles go, Wing Chun is compact. Most styles of Kung Fu have dozens of empty hand forms and dozens of weapons forms. Wing Chun only has three empty hand forms, two weapons and its signature wooden dummy. Robert Downey Jr. is an avid Wing Chun practitioner, so much so that a wooden dummy appears prominently in the opening scenes of Iron Man 3.
Apart from The Legend is Born – Ip Man and Ip Man: Kung Fu Master, Dennis To played Ip Man in one more film, Kung Fu League. This was an absurd Hong Kong action fantasy rom com where a comic book artist meets four martial arts icons: Ip Man, Wong Fei-Hung, Huo Yunjia, and Chen Zhen.
Wong Fei-Hung is the most portrayed character in film. There are well over a hundred Wong Fei-Hung movies, around eighty of which were by one actor, Kwan Tak Hing. Like Ip Man, Wong Fei-Hung was a real life folk martial hero but he was from an earlier generation having lived from 1847 to 1925. In Kung Fu League, he’s played by Vincent Zhao, who portrayed him in several later installments of the Once Upon a Time in China franchise after Jet Li abandoned the role.
Huo Yunjia was the deceased master whose funeral brings Bruce Lee’s character Chen Zhen back to Shanghai in Fist of Fury. Huo was another real life martial folk hero who lived from 1868 to 1910 and was portrayed by Jet Li in Fearless. In Kung Fu League, he is played by Andy On. Chen Zhen was completely fictional, but he’s played by Danny Chan, who reprises his Bruce Lee impersonation from Shaolin Soccer. Chan also played Lee in Yip’s Ip Man 3, Ip Man 4, and the China-made TV series The Legend of Bruce Lee.
Is Ip Man: Kung Fu Master the Unifier or a Copycat?
The Chinese title of this film is Ip Man Jung Si, which translates loosely as “Ip Man Lineage Master.” Ironically, the surname ‘Ip’ can mean ‘harmonize’ or ‘unite’ but Ip Man: Kung Fu Master doesn’t unite the Ip Man franchises at all. If anything, it poaches heavily from its predecessors in another contrived effort to ride on their successes. Directed by Li Liming, Ip Man: Kung Fu Master was previously released online due to coronavirus closures in China and is just now making its way across the Pacific.
What’s more, Li has already released a prequel, Young Ip Man: Crisis Time, starring newcomer Zhao Wenhao as a collegian Ip Man. Time will tell if that one ever picks up western distribution to make it across the pond too.
Ip Man: Kung Fu Master is set during when the real life Ip Man served as a police officer in Foshan. In the film, Ip Man is depicted as a righteous police captain coping with drug smuggling Tongs while the Japanese occupation encroaches on China. The film begins with an outrageous fight scene where Ip Man takes on dozens of Tong hatchet men who conveniently attack him one at a time.
The Tong is the Axe Gang, and while the origin of term ‘hatchet men’ can be traced back to 1874 as a reference to Chinese Tongs in San Francisco using hatchets, this Axe Gang feels derivative of the Axe Gang in Kung Fu Hustle, right down to the outrageous magnitude of swarming mob of hatchet men that Ip Man must face alone. There’s an attempt at metaphoric artiness as the Tong leader calmly plays Chinese chess while Ip Man battles his way up flights of stairs to get to him. The opening fight sets the tone of the film.
There’s going to be a lot of preposterous Kung Fu fights in this film with some pretentious style. But that’s fine. It’s a martial arts film. As long as the filmmakers set the level of suspension of belief consistently, fans of the genre love stylized fights.
Later, there’s a ridiculous fight scene during a dramatization of Ip Chun’s birth. It’s almost comedic in a good way, leading the midwife to remark “Fights again. They never end.” That sums up Ip Man: Kung Fu Master in a nutshell. It also dates the film since Ip Chun was born in 1924, but this is a highly fictionalized story, not a docudrama by any stretch of the imagination, so it should not be held accountable for exacting accuracy.
Beyond the Axe Gang, Ip Man: Kung Fu Master contains a lot of martial arts cliches. There’s a couple of Japanese assassins in Matrix-like trench coats. There’s a drunken master. It’s a characterization of real-life master Leung Bik who was one of Ip Man’s teachers. Ironically, Ip Chun portrayed Leung Bik in The Legend is Born – Ip Man.
There’s a point when Ip Man dons a mask and becomes the Black Knight. That recalls Jet Li’s Black Mask, but then it becomes a symbol of Chinese rebellion against the Japanese, echoing the Guy Fawkes masks in V for Vendetta, the Salvador Dali masks in Money Heist, or even the clown masks in Joker.
As To’s third outing of Ip Man, he owns the role, although not with the gravitas that Donnie Yen or Tony Leung brought. He moves a lot like Yen because both actors have roots in Wushu. He lifts Leung’s debonair fashion sense with a traditional Chinese cheongsam robe topped with a white fedora.
But this is not going to be a major blockbuster like Yen’s franchise, nor does it have any hope of an Oscar nod. This is an action-packed Kung Fu flick, a park-your-brain-outside romp to sit back and enjoy the ultraviolence. There are some furiously fun fights, and like many Chinese films set in in the period near the Japanese occupation, it ends with overblown tones of Chinese nationalism with the people chanting “China! China!” towards the film’s conclusion.
In China, Ip Man has become a franchise like the Three Musketeers. There are many versions and interpretations. There are plenty more adaptations that never even make it to western distributors. Last year, Ip Man and the Four Kings was a VOD feature film starring Michael Tong as Ip Man that opened with a tepid replay of the famous opening rain fight scene from The Grandmaster and also lifted Leung’s stylish white fedora.
There was also a Chinese TV series Ip Man that starred Kevin Cheng as Ip Man. Cheng played the young Ip Man in Ip Man: The Final Fight. This TV show ran for 50 episodes and Ip Chun and his brother Ip Ching (who sadly died in January 2020) were both invited as consultants. Ip Man has become the cinematic folk hero franchise inheritor of Wong Fei Hung, but he still trails Wong by at least a hundred films. Whatever the case, and whoever the filmmakers, we have not heard the last of Ip Man, not by a longshot.
Ip Man: Kung Fu Master is available theatrically and on VOD on December 11. Visit