Starring: Dennis To Yu-hang, Betty Huang Yi, Louis Fan Siu-wong, Rose Chan Ka-wun, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung Kam-bo
Director: Herman Yau Lai-to
Category: IIA (Cantonese)
Two semi-biographical blockbusters in the past 18 months have propelled martial arts master Ip Man from a name familiar only to kung fu fans to the status of popular legend.
Less legendary, in terms of motion picture creativity, are the movies themselves, with neither 2008's Ip Man nor this year's sequel reinventing the genre in a manner analogous to the innovations Ip brought to the wing chun style of wushu. And so it goes with this prequel, produced by another team but delivering similar clich?s.
Not that director Herman Yau's opus isn't true to its cinematic roots: especially in the earlier passages, commencing in 1905 when an adolescent Ip and his adopted brother become pupils of wing chun maestro Chan Wah-sun (Sammo Hung), there is a vibe that harks to the golden age of kung fu pictures. The sense of nostalgia reaches a peak with a blindfolded match between Chan and colleague Ng Chun-so (Yuen Biao), a rare 21st-century chance to see these veteran stars interact on celluloid.
By the time the narrative reaches 1915, the Ips have become young adults and the film benefits from casting performers whose kung fu skills are indisputable.
Dennis To (Ip Man, above right) and Louis Fan (Ip Tin-chi) played unrelated roles in the previous Ip movies, which is quickly forgotten as they take to their new roles with sober enthusiasm. Maybe too sober - wing chun champion To is a relative screen newcomer and a bit stiff when emoting. Fortunately, his action scenes are another matter.
The script by Erica Lee Man details the lad's sojourn from his native Foshan to Hong Kong. As in the other Ip sagas, the depiction of anti-Chinese racism is of a stereotypical and superficial variety.
In this case, a cringeworthy tussle with a rude gweilo leads to the film's most memorable sequence, in which the student encounters elderly wing chun great Leung Bik. What makes the scene a classic is Leung's impersonation by Yip Chun, Leung's real-life 85-year-old son. His sprightly presence endows the proceedings with credibility, and Yip is a screen natural.
Yau is a director at his best when cutting loose, be it glorious schlock (The Untold Story, Ebola Syndrome) or meaningful social commentary (From the Queen to the Chief Executive). His take on Ip Man falls somewhere in between, but is hardly the stuff legends are made of.
The Legend is Born - Ip Man opens today