Less gore, more fights in Ip Man bio-pic

Director Herman Yau and actor Anthony Wong get to grips with an heroic personality in their festival opener, writes Yvonne Teh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 March, 2013, 4:36pm

It's been 20 years since true-crime feature The Untold Story shocked audiences with what critic Paul Fonoroff called "a mindless orgy of bloodletting". The film was inspired by a case in Macau in the 1980s, in which a restaurant worker murdered his employer's family and served their ground-up remains in cha siu bao (roasted pork buns).

Probably the most infamous of the collaborations between writer-director Herman Yau Lai-to and actor Anthony Wong Chau-sang, the 1993 movie was an international commercial success. It grossed 10 times its production cost of HK$2 million in overseas sales alone.

And Wong won his first best actor prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his depiction of the cannibalistic murderer.

Now the pair have a new offering - their 16th joint effort - which opens this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival today. Although it also is based on a true story and has some violent scenes, Ip Man: The Final Fight, is very different from their earlier collaboration, and for good reason.

"As far as I can [choose what I can] do as a filmmaker, I don't want to repeat what I've done before. I treat making films as my career. So of course I want to try something else," Yau says. And this time, Wong plays his well respected protagonist.

[My film] is inspired by real-life stories but I can't say that it's a [completely faithful] imitation
Herman Yau, director, about Ip Man: The Final Fight

The Final Fight is the second of Yau's historical action dramas that have real-life wing chun master Ip Man (1893-1972) as their subject, but it is the fifth film about the kung fu master (whose students include Bruce Lee) to come out of Hong Kong in just six years.

Wilson Yip Wai-shun got the ball rolling with Ip Man in 2008 and Ip Man 2 two years later. Yau made a film about Ip's earlier years, The Legend is Born - Ip Man, in 2010. Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster was released earlier this year.

Speaking about the Ip movie phenomenon, Yau credits Wilson Yip with successfully tapping into local filmgoers' nostalgia for Hong Kong-style martial arts movies. "Most people know action films or martial arts movies are a valuable legacy of Hong Kong cinema," Yau says.

"When Yip's first Ip Man film came out, it was something that the Hong Kong audience [realised they] had missed [seeing] for some time. Of course in between there were action movies from the mainland but they were mostly period movies - the action 'aura' is not so rich in them."

Like the other Ip movies, Yau's films have Hong Kong-style action scenes - distinguished by acrobatic and high-octane sequences, with carefully choreographed moves - and boast many familiar faces, including Anita Yuen Wing-yee, Gillian Chung Yan-tung and Jordan Chan Siu-chun, among the cast.

The 52-year-old director says there still is quite a lot of room to be creative and different with his Ip Man. For example, Yip and Wong Kar-wai's films depict their protagonist in middle age, but Yau's two are chronological bookends of sorts: The Legend is Born has Ip attending secondary school in Hong Kong while The Final Fight focuses on the wing chun master's later years and covers the period after his move to Hong Kong up to his death, aged 79, in 1972.

Yau's latest film also taps into Hongkongers' collective memories of the city, with Ip learning to enjoy eating at dai pai dongs, venturing into the now-defunct Kowloon Walled City for cheap dental care, and fighting in the rain as Typhoon Wanda - the devastating 1962 storm that left 70,000 people homeless in Hong Kong - raged.

"Typhoon Wanda is a very vivid event in older people's memories. It caused a lot of damage in Hong Kong," Yau says. "So to me, that rain scene is … a way of giving historical context to key events in the film." Waggish audiences may see his rain-drenched fight scene as a parody of a similar sequence in The Grandmaster, but Yau exclaims, with a laugh: "It's just coincidence."

Although they built the script on actual events in Ip's life, these aren't enough to give a sense of the man. So there is a fairy-tale element, "a once upon a time imagining of the character", he says.

Some creative licence has been employed for dramatic effect. "During Ip's time in Hong Kong, there were quarrels between two schools of martial arts [one headed by Ip and the other by the character portrayed by Eric Tsang Chi-wai]. But of course we have dramatised" the real story, the director says. "The Final Fight is inspired by real-life stories but I can't say that it's a [completely faithful] imitation."

It remains to be seen whether moviegoers will find Wong as convincing as Ip Man as he was as The Untold Story's "bun man".

Ip Man: The Final Fight, today, 9.45pm, The Grand Cinema, today, 9.50pm, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival. On general release from Mar 28