In recent memory, Wing Chun master, Ip Man, may have already surpassed the mythical status of his student turned famous screen actor Bruce Lee. Adding to this mythification is Li Xijie and Zhang Zhulin’s Ip Man: The Awakening, set in the period that all the other Ip Man films have skipped – the master’s brief stay in Hong Kong during his teenage years. So little is known about this period in Ip’s life that even the biography authored by his son only mentioned it very briefly. Indeed, here’s such a gap to be filled that the film really feels like filler.
It focuses on Ip Man (Miu Tse) as a young man attending high school in Hong Kong. After a joyful bike ride, he stumbles upon a mugging incident in a tram. Virtuous as he is, Ip can’t let the crime go unpunished. It is through this incident that he meets Bufeng (Chen Guan Ying), a rickshaw driver and former kung fu classmate from back in Foshen. After spending some time working with Bufeng driving a rickshaw, Ip Man targets a human trafficking ring run by a colonial businessman.
Although previous Ip Man films took liberties in shifting biographical narratives for dramatic effect, Ip Man: The Awakening takes things too far. Diving deep into a crime syndicate activity and attempting to dismantle it single-handedly as a teenager is the stuff of urban myth. What one should expect from this film is some of the elements already found in other Ip Man films, only placed on a younger and more immature character whose sense of justice always gets ahead of him.
Young Ip’s naivete and idealism carries the more interesting aspect of the film as it is this aspect of his character that gets his friends into trouble. This conflict is the theme that plays repetitively in the film: Young Ip being nosey and his friends suffering from it. Adding to the mythification of the future master is a portrait of an idealist who makes mistakes by rushing in on doing what he thinks is right, far from the generally calm and resolved Ip Man of the previous films.
After the exposition section, the rest of the film just plays out within the logic of mythifying the heroism of a young Ip Man whose Wing Chun prowess took down a crime syndicate. The runtime is almost 80 minutes, and the film is as simple as it is short. However, this simplicity is actually what would make it difficult for those who have yet to see an Ip Man film appreciate Ip Man: The Awakening, even at its bare minimum. Ip Man: The Awakening is established from the cues and mannerisms of previous Ip Man films, as though it treats Ip Man already as a genre. Unfortunately, this latest attempt to present Ip Man film does not hold a candle to previous iterations, especially those which starred Donnie Yen. Its adherence to convention ends up making its subject less of a historical figure than a generic action hero. Even the fights are so generic that they are hard to discuss in any real detail.
This genericness makes Ip Man: The Awakening float in limbo with regards to the narrative expectations of anyone who follows either martial arts movies or the Ip Man films in particular. It is so thin, both in terms of story and approach, that it works mainly as a filler that one could skip and still not miss anything from the saga as a whole. It completely misses the point of what makes the Ip Man films so good and what makes Ip Man a legend. Ultimately, it pushes the mythification of Ip Man so consciously that it can’t become the film it purports to be.
Epoy Deyto has been writing about films and anime since 2009 and has recently moved his writings from Kawts Kamote to Missing Codec. He’s currently taking his Master’s in Media Studies (Film) at the UP Film Institute.