Ip Man 4: The Finale will give not just martial arts fans, but moviegoers in general, a treat. Director Wilson Yip has ended the series with a great sense of balance. While it delivers the barrage of punch and kicks that the Ip Man series has become known for, Ip Man 4 also provides intriguing insights into the contemporary realities of the Chinese diaspora.
This final installment continues its predecessors shift away from the first two films by emphasizing the more intimate aspect of the Wing Chun master whose martial arts practice often conflicts with his family life. The former films highlight how Ip Man (Donnie Yen) tends not to balance one with the other but rather chooses to answer to the call of his chosen vocation. However, like many of wuxia cinema’s greats, conflicts within martial arts tend to reflect his own life and somehow resolve the conflict with both.
In light of these conflicting approaches, we again see in Ip Man 4 two parallel narrative threads in Ip’s life. Years after the death of his wife, Ip Man received an invitation from his former apprentice Bruce Lee (Danny Chan) to help him promote Chinese kung fu in the USA. Initially not interested, he is nonetheless pushed to accept as he needs to find a school for his rebellious son, Ip Ching (Ye He), to transfer to. This move comes with a sense of urgency as Ip Man has recently learnt that cancer cells in his throat are spreading too fast and can no longer be controlled.
On the other side of the story, Ip Man is met with a predicament in the form of the Chinese Benevolent Association’s problem with Bruce’s campaign to popularize Chinese kung fu in the West. The chairman of the association, Tai-Chi master, Wan Zang Hua (Wu Yue), asks for Ip Man’s help since Bruce is his former student. However, Ip Man is aligned with Bruce’s desire to make Chinese kung fu more widely known. These parallel narratives do not just place Ip Man’s personal worries against the concerns of the martial arts world, but of San Francisco’s American Chinese community.
In the third film, with Ip Man at his peak within Hong Kong’s martial arts circle, he goes into conflict with another Wing Chun master. Ip Man 4 returns to this trope with school wars. However, what’s at stake this time is the collective struggle of Chinese people living in a foreign land, at a period in history when they are being openly persecuted and discriminated against. This is perhaps what makes Ip Man 4 more satisfying in contrast with the Mike Tyson fight in the third film: that Americans are getting beaten up by oriental opponents in their own land. The series may have returned to its previous concerns, but it hasn’t lost its teeth.
Then again, a point of resolution needs to be reached. What Ip Man 4 really shows is a certain sense of validation and a call for co-existence in a language that can be easily understood by Americans – violence. Important points of entry to this discourse are embodied by Bruce Lee’s student and US military personnel, Hartmann Wu (Van Ness), who desires to introduce Chinese kung fu for the US army’s combat use. The final fight between Ip and Gunnery Sergeant Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins), which is presented as a demonstration, highlights this tension between retaliation and struggle for coexistence. While being the most satisfying fight in the whole film, it is also the most conflicting as the brutality against the then-minorities is resolved by empowering the very structure which enables the violence against their own community.
While having very conflicting views if contrasted within contemporary realities, Ip Man 4 showcases how much more wuxia cinema can offer the world. The film combines the spectacle of martial arts fights with narrative conflict resolution. It also hints at more contemporary issues while trying to expound tradition, which is important in its discussion of diverse coexistence in a foreign land. In a way, Ip Man 4: The Finale has corrected the exoticization of Chinese kung fu in the western mindset into a context that introduces it as part of the diasporic community’s avenue for struggle.