“When the lights come on in Bar Street—that’s my sunrise.” Tucked away in the anarchic tangle of electric wires and neon signboards on Hong Kong’s “Bar Street” is a story of strength, spirit and quiet dignity. Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy, the latest instalment in the Ip Man franchise, directed by veteran Yuen Woo-ping, is not just a punch-throwing, knife-wielding, backflipping martial arts flick. There is a surprisingly well-developed narrative on family ties—about the people we are connected to by blood, and also those who become our family in life. An undercurrent of anti-colonial angst that runs throughout the film gives Master Z another dimension—an interesting take on Hong Kong society under British rule.
Set in the 1960s, defeated Wing Chun fighter Cheung Tin Chi (Max Zhang) is seeking a simple life with his son, away from the fighting scene. However, he crosses paths with felonious American businessman/high-end restaurant owner Owen Davidson (Dave Bautista) and the local triad, becoming reluctantly entangled in their conflicts. In an act of revenge, his house is burned down, but Julia (Liu Yan) offers him a place to stay. Michelle Yeoh, Kevin Cheng, Tony Jaa, Patrick Tam and Chrissie Chau also star in the film.
The film moves fast, with portraits of family life, glitzy parties (where British soldiers and local Hong Kong women mingle)—and plenty of action. Fight sequences are captivating and pleasantly distinct from each other—one particularly bizarre cup-manipulating sequence featuring Michelle Yeoh must be a first in film history. Sometimes, the thumps and swooshes feel a little over-the-top, but they fit into the film’s overall exaggerated dramatic style. Also, being punched and slammed into the ground by the burly Owen Davidson would guarantee at least four broken ribs, internal organ damage and a concussion but Tin Chi defies medical logic and bounces back into fights quickly. More unbelievable are fight scenes where Tin Chi individually defeats twenty men running at him with knives.
The tall, hulky Dave Bautista plays the part of the white, condescending colonial bully (loosely referred to as “guai lo” in the local Cantonese dialect) perfectly—and the small but deft Max Zhang completes the asymmetrical picture of colonizer and the colonized. However, this commentary on colonial power in the film is a complex and nuanced one. For his son’s birthday present, Tin Chi buys a “Black Bat” figurine (of the DC Comics “Batman” kind)—a Western conception of hero and warrior. His son receives this present with glee and often takes it out to play. The toy is cleverly used to mark how the image of the “superhero” evolves during the film, as Tin Chi fights against Owen, local gangsters, drug lords and opium dealers. At one point, a British man yells in exasperation, “We can’t have a Chinese hero running around!” It is with the “softness” and flexibility of the Wing Chun philosophy that Tin Chi uses against the brute strength and offensive cuts and chops of Owen Davidson—as if to say: Power is not determined by size. With Tin Chi as leader, one can sense the rebellious spirit of colonial Hong Kong under British authority.
Away from the emphatic kicks and swashbuckling bravado, there is a quiet, captivating allure in director Yuen Woo-ping’s images, rendering the narrow alleys, bar interiors and humble housing spaces with a rich, nostalgic beauty. Master Z is sure to delight loyal followers of the franchise, but also bring new supporters with its entertaining action and satisfying family drama.