Directed by Yuen Wo Ping
Starring Jin (Max) Zhang, Dave Bautista and Michelle Yeoh
Running time: 1 hour and 47 minutes
by Stacey Osbeck
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is the latest installment of the Ip Man franchise, directed by legendary Hong Kong Action filmmaker, Yuen Wo Ping. American audiences may be more familiar with Yuen Wo Ping’s work than his name, as he’s acted as fight coordinator on many major productions including: The Matrix, Kill Bill, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Wing Chun Master Cheung Tin Chi (Max Zhang), after suffering a loss to legendary Ip Man, walks away from the world of martial arts and chooses a simpler life in which to raise his young son.
Meanwhile, Nana (Chrissie Chau) calls her future sister-in-law, Julia (Liu Yan), for help. Gangsters, led by Kit (Kevin Cheng), won’t let Nana go until she pays her running tab to the local opium den. Julia brings the money, but the women are still not allowed to leave. Forced to fight their way out, Julia (especially) displays some impressive moves. When the scuffle spills into the street Julia and Tin Chi cross paths. The former Wing Chun Master defends the ladies, taking on all the gangsters until the police come and ruin the fun.
Kit and his crew take swift revenge, burning down Tin Chi’s grocery shop and sleeping quarters, leaving father and son homeless. Julia believes one good deed deserves another and implores her brother, Fu (Xing Yu), the owner of the Gold Bar, to let her take them in.
Kung Fu movies are a bit like the ballet. Complex plots are unnecessary. With both, we’re mostly there for the choreography. Although the beginning of Master Z treads familiar ground to kick the fighting off early, life with the family and work at the Gold Bar is when the story actually takes off. Here, the scope expands to the broader forces behind both Nana’s and the community’s troubles.
Opium is not a new topic for the Hong Kong cinema scene. But for American audiences the timing seems significant. Greed and apathy leading to an opioid crisis. The stakes don’t just feel high, they seem real. A nighttime stroll reveals plenty of working class people hunched down, smoking in darkened passageways, getting their fix.
The Gold Bar too subtly highlights the distinction between Julia’s and Nana’s class background. The nightclub entertains wealthy foreigners and sailors in port. All the girls there have one job, to make sure the patrons keep buying drinks. Beautiful Julia, the owner’s sister, enjoys a cushier standing as a singer onstage and conversing with classy clientele. While Nana, the bride-to-be but not quite yet a member of the family, must endure sailors plying her with liquor. Her helplessness apparent, at one point she flees to the back alley to vomit. Maybe her marriage to the boss will save her from this life down the road, but in the immediate, drugs are the only escape from her daily miseries. The contrast between the two ladies’ roles at the bar exemplifies the unseen hardships those lower in the societal pecking order endure, and why some more easily fall prey to addiction.
An unfair fight where Fu is beaten while handcuffed should turn up an easy win since Fu’s a good guy. As he slowly loses steam though, the odds of everything, not just that moment, enter into the picture. Handcuffs, opioids, colonialism, corruption - with the deck so stacked how can even the good guy be expected to win?
The Police Chief (Brian Thomas Burrell) comes across as such a cardboard cutout of a character he doesn’t read like a person at all. This actually works in the filmmaker’s favor, dipping into the uncanny valley, creeping me out.
Owen Davidson (Dave Bautista) is devilishly charming as a two faced American businessman. The actor’s WWE wrestling days comes through in some of his fight moves bringing a different flavor to the martial arts mix. (Guardians of the Galaxy fans may also enjoy the fact that his stunt double in this film is a man named Rob de Groot.)
Mob Boss and Kit’s older sister, Tso Ngan Kwan (Michelle Yeoh) gives an understated performance, struggling to bury the demons of her family’s past, while forging her own future. A poised and shrewd businesswoman, she can also wield a lethal saber when the situation arises. (Spoiler alert: the situation arises.)
The fight scenes are plentiful and well-orchestrated. Those who don’t care for the genre overall may want to check it out simply for Joyce Chan’s gorgeous costuming and Raymond Chan’s vibrant art direction of 1960s Hong Kong.