The Ip Man franchise has long been dedicated to themes of Chinese pride, as displayed by the telling of the Wing Chun master’s story. In the first film, it was the Japanese occupying force that our Chinese hero dispelled, and in a later entry it was the British. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the film in which Ip Man takes on America would prove to be the most transparently nationalistic in the franchise, once again allowing him to take on another nation’s military. Depiction of the United States is often so negative that the film flirts with full on nationalistic propaganda, but fortunately the fight choreography is still pretty good.
Ip Man 4 begins in China with the title character (played, once again, by Donnie Yen) having some difficulty in his personal life. First is the death of his wife, which is followed by a troubled relationship with his son. Traveling to America to search for a better life for his son, Ip Man also reunites with his former student, Bruce Lee. Together, these two must face a series of obstacles in San Francisco. On one side, they face the disapproving California Chinese martial arts committee, who take issue with the fact that Lee is teaching kung fu to non-Chinese. At the same time, both Lee and Ip Man face adversity in the form of racism, on the streets and within the American military.
The big heavy that Ip Man must fight in this film is a military commander convinced that teaching soldiers the art of karate is far more beneficial than the more unfamiliar kung fu. That karate comes from the former Ip Man enemy country of Japan is fitting, though the casting of British actor/martial artist Scott Adkins in the role of the commander is a bit confusing. Either way, we know immediately from this bad guy’s behavior that the film will inevitably end with a showdown between martial arts.
While there may be some truth to the narrative, there is also a lot of manipulation to make the true story more black and white. For one thing, while Ip Man may have initially taught Bruce Lee Wing Chun, he also eventually kicked him out of the school for being mixed race (Lee’s mother was Eurasian). Knowing this, it seems unlikely that Ip Man would have come to Lee’s defense in San Francisco over teaching other white people kung fu. But more obvious in the plot contrivances of Ip Man 4 is the constant depiction of all white American characters as violent and racist (often with very bad acting). From school children who chase down and bully Asian students to the American military beating Chinese characters simply because of their race, the portrayal of these characters is far from nuanced. They are one-dimensional tools for the film’s propagandist message, which is simply that no matter how bad China may be, it is still better than the United States.
Ignoring the transparent nationalism, Ip Man 4 does boast some impressive fight sequences choreographed by legend Yuen Wo Ping (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). There are multiple enemies that have been embellished for this very purpose. Adkins alone has mastered the art of being a martial arts villain, even if his character provides no real depth. And despite there being questions about some of the history, it is quite nice to see some of the indisputable moments from Bruce Lee’s journey depicted onscreen, especially as it allows the franchise to come full circle from the end of the first film.
The Blu-ray release comes with a DVD copy as well, not to mention the extras on the discs themselves. There are a couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes, which read more as promotional material than informative for those who have seen the film already. There is also an optional English-language dubbing, for those too lazy to read the scenes with subtitles.
Entertainment Value: 7.5/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 6.5/10
Historical Significance: 6/10
Special Features: 5/10