Ip Man: The Awakening review – martial-arts action offers quickstep fight rhythms

The British are the baddies in a clunky origin story that can’t land a blow on Donnie Yen’s original series

A mainland Chinese attempt to cash in on Donnie Yen’s superior Hong Kong series about Bruce Lee’s eponymous sifu, this film’s quickstep fighting rhythms are bogged down by a laughable lack of effort on the narrative front. Budding martial arts master Ip Man, played here by former child star and Jet Li acolyte Miu Tse, arouses the ire of the arrogant British colonialist Mr Stark (played by Sergio de Ieso in a possible nod to Iron Man) after interrupting his human trafficking ring. That’s your lot story-wise; slogging through 76 minutes feels like being forced to do one-finger press-ups for the same length of time.

This is the kind of plot staple – plucky martial arts school takes on foreign bullyboys – that animated many a Shaw Brothers or Golden Harvest production back in the day. Ip’s wing chun must ultimately trump the bartitsu of Mr Stark and his minions; the latter sounds made up, but was actually a genuine 19th-century British martial art. It’s a sign of the times that Britons are now viable bad guys for Chinese and Indian cinema, as in RRR, and why shouldn’t we be fair game? But there’s something insidious about the demonisation of foreign devils here in the context of China’s recent crackdown in Hong Kong.

De Ieso gives willing pantomime, taking a leaf from the Andrew Tate school of cartoon villainy by permanently cradling a stogie and glass of port. All of the baddies here speak a bizarre, Chinese-accented English. Only Tse emerges with any credit, spry and almost supernaturally detached in the (generally competent) fight scenes. He has enough authority, despite a gaping void where some characterisation would have been nice, to pass for the junior-high version of the hallowed master. But this is lightweight, forgettable stuff.

• Ip Man: The Awakening is available on Icon Film Channel from 3 April, and is released in UK cinemas on 5 May.


Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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