At first glimpse, this martial arts film is a tad disorientating. Nothing looks real. The footage looks like it was shot entirely on a soundstage. There are few to no exterior shots with actual sun or moonlight. But, if you acclimate yourself to this process, you can enjoy this curious production that sometimes feels like a play, a dance performance or an elaborate opera for people who block, chop, kick and punch.
Before the characters take the stage, here’s a little history: Ip Man was a grandmaster of the martial art Wing Chun. This fighting style is a traditional Southern Chinese Kung Fu that tends to be more defensive than offensive. The movements are quick, strong and soft all at the same time. Ip Man was famous for being legendary fighter/actor Bruce Lee’s teacher. Also, director Woo-Pin Yuen is a well-known Chinese actor/stuntman famous for creating the action choreography for the Matrix series and the Oscar-winner Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
In the 1960s, Cheung Tin Chi (Jin Zhang, The Grandmaster) and his young son Fung have relocated from China to Hong Kong. Cheung, once a Win Chun expert, comes to HK after experiencing a humbling defeat in China by Ip Man. Now he owns a small grocery store and tries to live under the radar. Neighborhood kids bully his boy and disrespect him too. Yet, Cheung refuses to get drawn into any conflict.
Haphazardly, Tin Chi is forced into a fight with local thugs when he comes to the rescue of Julia (Yan Liu, Badges of Fury), a nightclub singer. She’s defending her opium-addicted friend Nana (Chrissie Chau). Nana owes money to her drug dealer Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng), and Kit and his men attack the women. Tin Chi saves they day, which pisses off the aggressors.
That good deed sets the single dad on a different trajectory. He meets Julia’s nightclub-owning brother Fu (Xing Yu), Kit’s older/wiser crime lord sister Kwan (Michelle Yeoh, Crazy Rich Asians and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) and the smarmy, oaf-sized American ex-pat, restaurant owner and drug kingpin Owen Davidson ( Dave Bautista, former WWE champion turned actor in films like Riddick and Blade Runner 2049).
The plotline by screenwriters Edmond Wong and Tai-lee Chan (the Ip Man trilogy) unfurls and their homage to Ip Man’s style is evidenced as a bounty of characters hits the screen. Rivalries, infernos, street fights and revenge attacks mount. Action scenes explode at the right intervals and are well-paced (editors Kai Pong Chow and Chi-Leung Kwong). Martial arts fans will eat it up, even if some of the stunts employ invisible wires to help the cast leap over opponents and climb buildings. The target audience won’t care one bit.
When Tin Chi crashes into walls and breaks them, you can clearly see that they’re made of thin wood or cardboard. The production looks fake, like a stage setting for a play and oddly it’s a style choice that becomes increasingly engaging. Think back to Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart. That movie was shot almost entirely on Coppola’s Zoetrope sound stages. Master Z… takes a similar approach, which can make viewers think the production quality is rickety or inventive, depending on their tastes. Add in the colorful, well-lit cinematography (David Fu and Seppe Van Grieken), period costumes (Joyce Chan) and saturated colors (art direction by Raymond Chan) and the visuals are a lock.
With Woo-Ping Yuen as the mastermind, the fight scenes are kinetic, wondrous and almost balletic. At times the combat is violent. Other times it’s as if the fighters are involved in highly elaborate and tightly constructed choreography. Imagine West Side Story told with an Asian twist, where the Jets and Sharks gangs go at it kung fu style. Then hold that thought and ponder if Master Z… would make a captivating a theater piece.
Jin Zhang’s resemblance to Johnny Depp is almost uncanny. Same lips, pout and stature. He’s every inch a leading man. Yan Liu as the feisty Julia is radiant. Michelle Yeoh brings traces of her persona from CTHG to mind. At 56 years old she can still throw down some very convincing kicks and hits against men half her age. Lurking in the background is a mysterious hitman played by Tony Jaa, who looks like he could beat up an army.
The script takes jabs at British imperialism as it depicts Her Majesty’s men taking bribes to control the local police. They’re getting paid under the table by Owen Davidson, who is masterfully played by Dave Bautista. The WWE showman is the size of a truck. In fact, the final knock down drag out battle between Tin Chi and Owen is a complete marvel—in a David versus Goliath way.
Check your disbelief and cynicism at the door. If you’re looking for an artistic martial arts film on the level of Zhang Yimou’ elegant House of Flying Daggers, this isn’t it. Yet, you can still enjoy this very creative and novel piece for its performances, storytelling, rivalries and well-staged action scenes.