IP MAN: THE AWAKENING – Review

Ip Man (Miu Tse), right, fights an adversary in IP MAN: THE AWAKENING. Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

Ip Man is a historic Chinese martial arts master who inspired a nation in his era, and a raft of movies ever since. Most memorable for Western viewers would be the four films starring Donnie Yen from 2008-2019. Besides being an accomplished fighter and actor, Yen achieved the rare feat of making all four of these films excellent, without the usual sequel drop-off. Well, to be honest, the third had a bit of a quality dip, before rallying for number four, which was arguably the best of the quartet.

Even though the last of these was titled IP MAN: THE FINALE, that qualifier only applied to Yen, not his character. Apparently, the Marvel Universe isn’t the only place one can blow right past what sounds like a series-ending name. Did anyone really think AVENGERS: ENDGAME would be the end of a franchise? In this extension, a younger version of Yen (nice-guy good looks, projecting integrity and humility beyond his years), Miu Tse. He’s a worthy successor in both requirements for the character here in IP MAN: THE AWAKENING.

Reworking a premise that’s been oft-used since the Hong Kong chopsocky factories of the 1970s-1980s, Miu Tse as Ip Man plays a superb fighter, going to the big city for the first time, with no idea how much corruption he’d be facing. In this case, it seems to be set the 1930s, with some of the British occupiers rounding up young women for human trafficking on a major scale. They’re supported by cops on the take, and even natives more interested in a paycheck than in their fellow citizens. Ip Man is compelled to give all the baddies a beat-down, with losses and setbacks along the way for the sake of the women and for Chinese pride against the invaders.

The script follows the formula, honoring the hero and tradition. Miu Tse should be a rising star with a bright future. One interesting novelty is the villains’ use of a uniquely British, largely forgotten, martial arts form called bartitsu, which combines elements of many disciplines from Western boxing to several Asian specialties, usually wielding a cane or other stick. It’s rarely been part of any films in the genre. Sherlock Holmes mentioned it in passing once. Colin Firth’s character in KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE deployed a variation, though not calling it by name. Portraying the epitome of the dignified gentry, his stick was, of course, an umbrella.

The film is very efficient, running only 80 minutes. If you find the early fight scenes hard to follow (camera too close, edits too choppy), don’t lose faith. The later ones deliver the action with all the visual and audio quality fans will expect. It’s almost as if the crew learned their craft on-the-job, ending with far more polish than they started. Overall, a worthy debut in a classic role.

IP MAN: THE AWAKENING, in Cantonese Chinese with English subtitles, is available for streaming starting May 20 on the Hi-Yah! streaming service.

RATING: 3 out of 4 stars

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