Set in 1930s China, this follows Ip Man (Tony Chiu Wai Leung) who aims to unify the Northern and Southern styles of Kung Fu.
This film reportedly had 20 minutes cut out for its Western release, and boy does it show. The hurried exposition leaves us struggling to work out who is who, with the names of characters and who they are being told to us by words on the screen the first time they appear, which are impossible to read and process while also reading the subtitles. At least with my limited intelligence.
At other points, decades are skipped over in favour of cards on-screen telling you what happened in between. Sometimes this is acceptable, but other times it feels like seeing it happen really might have been better. Some sequences are so truncated and so heavily explained by text that it feels like watching a silent movie. It’s the bullet points of a plot with extended martial arts sequences, like Western audiences can only cope if there’s going to be another fight scene in the next five minutes. It’s a shame when there are such talented actors, such as Leung and the masterful Ziyi Zhang, whose talents are put to waste in a film which doesn’t afford them the space to properly develop their characters.
It has ideas above its station with its visuals, aiming for the rich and elegant beauty of films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, but lacking the execution to make it work. The sets and costumes are great, but the cinematography and editing don’t measure up. Too often fight scenes are left hard to follow due to overly quick cuts, excessive speeding up or a camera that’s in too close to the action. This is the approach used to make burly men in Western action films look faster and their fights more exciting, but in a martial arts film the focus is on the skill and precision, so this simply isn’t needed. At other points things are slowed down for effect, but this is so clumsily done that the picture appears jittery. It’s a shame because there are some good ideas here, and some well-designed sets, but the lack of skill behind the camera leaves it feeling like a failed attempt at style.
While there’s a decent amount of enjoyment in the well-choreographed fights, major problems in other areas leave this feeling rough around the edges.