Donnie Yen’s new Ip Man film: how Dave Bautista scared Max Zhang, martial artist who plays lead

  • ‘When Yen fought Mike Tyson, he was scared. And when I fought Dave, I was scared,’ says Zhang, who also shares fight scenes with Tony Jaa and Michelle Yeoh

  • Superstar Yen, a producer on Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy and star of the Ip Man series, gave full control of the spin-off to director Yuen Woo-ping

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2018, 6:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2018, 8:28pm

There’s a new Ip Man action blockbuster in Hong Kong cinemas this holiday season and Donnie Yen Ji-dan’s wing chun master character from the past films is, surprisingly, not in it.

Instead, the spin-off feature Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy sees actor Max Zhang Jin reprise his role as Cheung Tin-chi, Ip’s (fictional) rival from Ip Man 3 . The defeated martial artist is pitted against new challengers played by the formidable trio of Tony Jaa, Michelle Yeoh and Dave Bautista.

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Master Z also marks the third directing effort in three years for the suddenly prolific Yuen Woo-ping (it follows 2016’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny and 2018’s The Thousand Faces of Dunjia).  The spin-off is the first leading role for Zhang, whose rise to kung-fu stardom began with his award-winning supporting turn in Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013).

Zhang, 44, and Yuen, 73, recently sat down with the Post to reflect on their latest collaboration.

From The Grandmaster and Ip Man 3 to your first starring role in Master Z , have you made sense of your meteoric rise in the past few years yet?

Zhang: There are several components to this. The first is the opportunities that the film directors have given me: it’s extraordinary that they like to make films with me; that they care to show my best sides. The second is the audience: I have honestly no idea what to expect from them. All I can do is to play it from my heart, and express my gratitude to them afterwards. Finally, regarding myself, I still need to work harder to develop my own fighting style.

How did you two first meet each other?

Yuen: It was when I was making films in China with a martial arts crew of two dozen or more members, and Zhang was one of them. I had no idea who he was at first; there were too many people around. Since his body type allowed him to play the stunt double for actresses – he stood in for Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh during Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – I started to notice him. His moves were very good, and I thought he had potential.

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When did you first hear about the possibility of making Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy?

Zhang: I was probably the last one to know.

Yuen: Weren’t you the first to know? But it was at least half a year after Ip Man 3 was released that this project first came up.

Were you surprised when it did?

Zhang: I was. When I was shooting Ip Man 3, it had never crossed my mind that my character would return in a spin-off film.

Yuen: It had never crossed my mind [that I would direct this spin-off film], either. The bosses who observed the audience reception came up with this idea.

The first three films in the Ip Man trilogy were all critical and commercial hits. Do you feel any pressure taking up the mantle?

Yuen: Not at all, because Master Z is not Ip Man. Although we’re making a spin-off film, it’s about a stand-alone character that is very different from Ip Man’s personality and approach. Ip is more of a humorous and polite person, whereas Cheung Tin-chi is more introverted. He doesn’t reveal much of his emotions even when he’s with his son. The two characters have different personalities – even their moves are different.

Donnie Yen is a producer on this film, and I can imagine him being very invested in it, given that it was the Ip Man series that made him a superstar. How much contribution has he actually made to Master Z ?

Yuen: None. None at all. He was very eager to participate, but he was far too busy to. He’s making his own films and he has his own business to attend to.

Zhang: He supported us with friendship.

Yuen: He has a lot of confidence in us. He knows what I would deliver as a director.

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Did you compare notes with Wilson Yip Wai-shun, who directed the first three Ip Man films, before you made this one?

Yuen: I didn’t. Because when I made Ip Man 3 with him [as that film’s action choreographer], I already got to see what his focus is in filmmaking. I understand his attention to characterisation, and I’ve also done my part to flesh out the characters here.

Did you have to pay attention to the narrative style of the previous Ip Man films? Did you have to maintain some kind of consistency with those films?

Yuen: That wasn’t my concern. And to be honest, I don’t think we should make a similar film to begin with. If people wanted to see the same movie, they could go back to watch Ip Man 3 instead of Master Z. This is a different character and it’s my responsibility to make his story interesting.

Zhang: When the film company named it The Ip Man Legacy, it was obviously out of market consideration. But it doesn’t mean that we’re making the same film. During the creative process, we treat Cheung Tin-cheung as a new character in a new setting.

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You get to fight a lot of high-profile opponents in Master Z . What was it like?

Zhang: It was all thanks to [Yuen’s] stature that we managed to assemble such a [strong] cast. Tony Jaa was a fan of his; Michelle hadn’t made an action movie for some time; and Dave is a Hollywood actor. They’re all very different. But I knew what to expect from Michelle because I started watching her action films at a very young age. I was scared of Dave though, he’s so much bigger than me.

Yuen: We all knew that Yeoh is a fierce fighter. It’s memorable to me that even after she was bruised during one take – she tends to get bruises often – she would ask for another take and keep going. She’s a great professional. As for Dave, [it was interesting because] he’s not at all used to our way of filmmaking.

When you shot the fight between Zhang and Dave Bautista in Master Z , did it remind you of the experience shooting Yen and Mike Tyson in Ip Man 3 ?

Yuen: No, because we don’t do things to repeat ourselves.

Zhang: But there’s indeed something similar with the actors’ mentality: we were all scared. When Yen fought Tyson, he was scared. And when I fought Dave, I was scared, too. He’s so much taller than me, and his fists are so huge, that even if his punches didn’t land for real, you would still feel the pain.

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Yuen: When Yen fought Tyson, he was indeed scared. But Tyson was scared, too; he was scared of pulling the wrong moves and hurting Yen!

Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy opens on December 20

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