Coming so soon after Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster, Herman Yau's Ip Man: The Final Fight can't help but seem like an afterthought. After Wong had arguably uttered the last summarizing word on the legendary Wing Chun martial-arts master with a film that, more than Wilson Yip's action biopics preceding it, focused as much on the personal as on the physical, one may wonder what this latest entry in the recent Hong Kong Ip Man cottage industry has left to offer.
But with Yau having previously tackled Ip Man's teenage years in The Legend Is Born: Ip Man, it was perhaps inevitable that he would then turn to the last two decades of the Grandmaster's life in this new film (Wong tackled neither period in his recent epic). Thus, as Ip Man (Anthony Wong) tries to settle into the life in Hong Kong that he would lead after migrating there from Foshan, China, The Final Fight at times exudes an appropriately autumnal air. Ip Man himself experiences personal losses—the death of his wife, most notably, back in Foshan—and an awareness of mortality even as he establishes an informal Wing Chun school and witnesses heroism, kindness, and corruption all around him, taking it all in with his usual Zen-like manner.
As per the film's title, however, Ip Man is forced to participate in one last major conflict, eventually facing off against Dragon (Xin Xin Xiong), a Triad crime lord who's essentially imposed a reign of lawless terror in an area of Hong Kong. But while Yip's Ip Man films were essentially martial-arts genre pictures based on the grandmaster's life, Yau's film splits the difference between satisfying genre expectations and aiming for a more patchwork memoir-like quality, focusing as much on establishing period settings and political/personal conflicts as on dazzling martial-arts spectacle.
The results are admittedly rather messy; for all the supporting characters the film introduces, most of them register as one-dimensional ciphers at best, and the narrative build-up to the climactic “final fight” feels somewhat clumsy and awkward. Still, the fight scenes deliver the expected pleasures of witnessing graceful bodies in furious movement; one particular sequence between Ip Man and fellow grandmaster Ng (Eric Tsang) exhilarates as the two display their distinctive martial-arts styles in a skirmish between equals. And while this new film is no different from its predecessors in treating Ip Man as a mythical icon rather than a flesh-and-blood human being, Anthony Wong nevertheless does a creditable job of conveying the man's reflectiveness through his twilight years that occasionally cuts through the hagiographic nature of the enterprise. Even if you'll need to turn to The Grandmaster for greater thematic and emotional depth, as afterthoughts go, Ip Man: The Final Fight turns out to be a reasonably entertaining one.