Legendary Wing Chun master Ip Man (Donnie Yen) has settled into a quiet life in Hong Kong with his wife, Wing-sing (Lynn Hung), and son, Ip Ching (Wang Yan Shi). However, he’s soon thrown back into action as gangsters threaten his son’s school at the behest of a foreign developer (Mike Tyson) trying to buy up land. In addition to stopping these gangsters, Ip Man finds himself challenged by an ambitious rival Wing Chun master, Cheung Tin-chi (Zhang Jin), as well as having to deal with the emotional turmoil of his wife’s cancer diagnosis.
There’s no reason for Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 3 to play as well as it does. The previous two films were massive blockbusters in China, cementing the star power of Donnie Yen and clarifying a national interest in this fascinating historical figure (who just happened to train Bruce Lee). But they were also simplistic and overwhelmingly jingoistic films, painting all foreigners (especially the British and Japanese) as villainous interlopers, if not downright monsters. While Ip Man 3 retains its nationalistic interest (a must for any film from mainland China), it tones down the xenophobia and lets Yen struggle against more homegrown threats.
The main appeal of any martial arts film is the quality of the fight scenes, and Ip Man 3 doesn’t disappoint in this respect. Yuen Woo-ping’s choreography is spectacular, working in concert with the soft lighting and perpendicular framing of Kenny Tse’s cinematography to create something more painterly than what we see in the previous two films. You can sense the influence of Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster, which Yuen also worked on, forcing the fight scenes to try for something more than mere visceral impact. As well, the addition of wushu champion Zhang Jin as rival fighter, Cheun Tin-chi, creates an interesting foil for Ip Man. He allows the film to touch on thematic ground that embodies the essence of Chinese martial arts and Wing Chun in particular: that eternal struggle against the self and the conquering of inner weakness and desire.
Still, Ip Man 3 is not a seamless film. Its narrative is simplistic, painting Ip Man as a saintly figure with no flaws, and setting him up against villains with cartoonish motivations. The inclusion of Mike Tyson as one of the villains is a head-scratcher, even if his three-minute fight against Ip Man is an action standout. The emotional moments about Wing-sing’s cancer struggle also don’t play as they should. Donnie Yen is an amazing martial artist, but an actor with a limited range. He can’t hit the emotional high notes the script requires him to hit.
And yet, despite its limitations, Ip Man 3 might be the best in the series.