There are so many film and TV versions of Ip Man, the legendary Hong Kong martial arts guru who taught Bruce Lee, that it’s pointless to try and keep track of them all.
So let’s not even try. Life was simpler when I thought that this growing subgenre of martial arts action was sci-fi and skipped it. But eventually, one realizes the great Donnie Yen played this character multiple times, and he’s fun even in sci-fi (“Rogue One”). So you watch and you lose the misconception and maybe you get hooked.
Yen has moved on, but that doesn’t mean the character has to. As Ip Man learned Wing Chun kung fu and first practiced it in the 1920s and ’30s, that makes for some great period piece settings for his feet and fists of fury to be on display.
Hong Kong veteran Tse Miu takes over the role for “Ip Man: The Awakening,” another “origin story” that parks our hero as a young man in 1930 (or so) Hong Kong, someone who awakens the human trafficking and British misrule — got to pander to those People’s Repubilicans — and stands up for friends and his people in a battle of Wing Chun vs “The Gentleman’s Martial Art” practiced by Sherlock Holmes, especially the Robert Downey Jr. version of him — “Bartitsu.”
Young Ip Man likes traveling the streets, resplendent in all white suits, and mixing it up with ruffians and bullies who try to rob the “weak” and the innocent in broad daylight.
Busting up a street car when a gang tries to rob Miss Chan (Zhao Yuxuan) is how he falls in with her brother, rickshaw driver Buefeng (Chen Guanying), whom he knew in childhood. And it’s while hanging out with Feng that he becomes aware of all the kidnappings of young women all over the city, something the Chinese/British police force turn a blind eye to and something that’s making a Euro-crime lord (Sergio Deieso, I think) rich.
Mr. Starke has the cops on the take or intimidated, so his version of “peace makes prosperity” holds sway. Take a little cash, look the other way, or somebody will find your pinky ring in their soup — that sort of thing.
If Mr. Starke and his countless minions out “rounding up piglets” are to be confronted, Ip Man will need to teach Feng and his fellow rickshaw drivers the ways of Wing Chun — “Sinking Bridge,” position, “Thrusting Fingers” and “Little Idea.”
The genre story’s simplicity is kind of mucked up by promising more than it delivers. Of course, Feng’s little sister Chan is kidnapped and of course this matter will have to be settled with a champion vs. champion martials arts prize fight.
Of course the “foreigners” will cheat. No, none of them speak good enough English to pass for “British.”
The big brawls are impressive enough, and Tse Miu is a competent if not the most compelling Ip Man ever to come along.
So unless you’re an Ip Man completist, “The Awakening” sits among the Ip Man movies you don’t bother with unless you’re behind on your sleep.
Rating: unrated, lots of violence — fists, knives and guns
Cast: Tse Miu, Chen Guanying, Hou Tongjiang, Sergio Deieso and Zhao Yuxuan
Credits: Directed by Li Xijie Adam and Zhang Zhulin, scripted by Fang Lan and Liu Bayin. A Well Go USA release.
Running time: 1:17