The disaporic film program at the AMC Pacific Place this week features two of the hottest Chinese-language films of the past year: the latest in Donnie Yen’s series about Wing Chun Master Ip Man and the CGI monster-wuxia that took the Chinese box office by storm last summer, breaking records on its way to becoming the highest-grossing local film in the Mainland’s history. The two films represent state of the art variations on the two oldest forms of the Chinese martial arts film, kung fu and wuxia tricked out with digital manipulations and effects, packed with enough celebrity cameos and show-stopping stunts to make even the most generic or implausible story a lot of fun.
Ip Man 3 is the third film directed by Wilson Yip starring Donnie Yen in the title rule of the master of the Wing Chun style of kung fu. Ip is best known as one of Bruce Lee’s teachers, and his notoriety and fame to this day is largely dependent on that famous pupil, who still, 40 years after his untimely death, casts an engulfing shadow over Hong Kong cinema. This is the sixth Ip Man film to be released in recent years: the three by Yip and Yen; two directed by Herman Yau starring Dennis To and Anthony Wong as young and old versions of Ip in The Legend is Born – Ip Man and Ip Man: The Final Fight, respectively; and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, starring Tony Leung. Of the series, only the Yau films really attempt to capture the historical Ip Man in any kind of accurate way. The outline of his story is the same in all of them: a cop on the Mainland before World War II, Ip moves to Hong Kong during the post-war civil war and establishes his kung fu school where he develops and perfects Wing Chun, a form of kung fu emphasizing quick movements in close combat. Wong’s film uses Ip’s story as a vehicle for meditations on history and continuity, a memory film haunted by the radical changes China suffered over the course of the 20th century. Yau’s films pay particular attention to details: of the Wing Chun form in the first film, of the older Yau’s peculiar psychology and his strains with the family of disciples he built around himself in exile in the second. But Wilson Yip’s films simply use Ip’s biography as a rough framework for telling generic kung fu movie stories, films with simple moral lessons and spectacular action.
The latest film is more disconnected from the reality of Ip’s life than any of the previous ones. It’s the film in which the series finally breaks with any pretension to biography and instead turns Ip into a folk hero, a legend in the mold of Wong Fei-hung, a just-as-real person whose life has been adapted into a hundred or so films over the past 65 years (a long running series of films in the 50s and 60s starred Kwan Tak-hing and served as a training ground for many greats of the golden age of kung fu cinema, including director/choreographers Lau Kar-leung and Yuen Woo-ping). The plot revolves around Ip defending his young son Ip Ching’s school from a gang of toughs hired by a corrupt businessman to extort the school’s principal into selling the property. The businessman is played by none other than former heavyweight champion of the world Mike Tyson, and the inevitable Tyson-Yen brawl is the film’s primary drawing card (and it does not disappoint, in fact all of the action in the film is exceptionally well done, if aided a bit too much by digitally speeding up some movements, the choreography is creative (by Yuen Woo-ping) and Yen, as always, is a precise and compelling fighter). A parallel story follows a younger Wing Chun master, who follows the form more purely but is also more morally dubious (he fights for money in an arena and has no qualms about using excessive force against his opponents). In both of these plots, Ip is a paragon of virtue, the serene and humble master ever generous and forgiving, always behaving honorably. That honor is tested however by a family crisis: his beloved wife Wing-sing is suffering from cancer, will Ip put aside the demands of the martial world to care for her?
Not to spoil things, but of course he will. But here’s the thing: if you’ve seen Ip Man: The Final Fight, you know what’s wrong with this story. When Ip Man moved to Hong Kong, he was accompanied by his wife and children (Chun and Ching). However, Wing-sing hated the city and soon moved back to the mainland (to Foshan, coincidentally also Wong Fei-hung’s hometown) and never saw Ip again. The most heart-breaking scene in any Ip Man film comes in Yau’s film, when the real Ip Chun plays a shopkeeper who tells Ip Man he has a phone call. Chun then watches as the actor playing the younger version of himself tells the actor playing his father that his mother has died. Ip Man 3 presents a wholly fictional version of the story, with Ip and his wife together to the end, with him ignoring challenges from rival fighters for the sake of spending a few final days with her. It really is lovely stuff, and some of the most human-seeming acting of Donnie Yen’s career. But it’s all phony. A screenwriting committee’s version of what a kung fu hero really should be like.
And yet it’s still more real than anything in Monster Hunt, an effects based comic wuxia directed by Raman Hui, a Hong Kong native who has spent most of his career working on animated Hollywood films, most notably on some Shrek and Kung Fu Panda shorts and as co-director on Shrek the Third. This appears to be Hui’s first Chinese film as well as his first feature as a solo director, and it broke every record at the Chinese box office when it debuted last summer. Somewhat inspired by folk myths, the film is set sometime in the past when CGI monsters live separate from humans in borderland mountains and forests. Any monsters that encroach into human territory are rounded up by monster hunters. A civil war in the monster land forces their queen to flee to the humans along with her unborn child. A young man with a bad leg (played by Jing Boran), son of a famous monster hunter, comes across the queen and she makes him swallow the egg with the child in it. With the help of a monster-hunting young woman (Bai Baihe, just as elastically charming as she was in Go Away Mr. Tumor), he and the egg evade various pursuers until he can give birth, then the three of them form a family of sorts. Famous actors swirl in and out of the plot: Eric Tsang and Sandra Ng as a pair of monsters in disguise; Elaine Jin (star of several Edward Yang classics) as the boy’s kooky grandmother; Jiang Wu (who looks exactly like his brother, the actor and director Jiang Wen) as a rival monster hunter; Yao Chen (the actress with the most followers on China’s version of twitter) who is hilarious as a chef specializing in carving up monsters; and Tang Wei, making her fourth appearance in a 2015 film, as an unscrupulous gambler and monster-dealer.
In broad outline the story is very similar to other recent effects-based wuxias. Both Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi Zero/Tai Chi Hero films and Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons pair an incompetent but kindly male lead with an adventurous and highly capable woman (Angelababy and Shu Qi, respectively). Monster Hunt takes the emasculation of the wuxia hero one step further by actually making him first pregnant and then the mother-figure in the pseudo-family the protagonist-group forms. And unlike in previous films, Jing’s hero never unlocks hidden reserves of superpower: he triumphs in the end not by becoming a fully-actualized superhero, but kind of by accident: he gets stabbed by his father’s old rusty sword (I can’t even fathom the Freudian depths hidden there) which, with the help of a little blood from his monster-baby, suddenly turns shiny and powerful enough to defeat the final monster villain, which Jing accomplishes basically by falling into the bad guy.
Interesting and fun as it is (and it is definitely fun: while reliable vets Tsang and Ng mostly spin their wheels, Tang Wei is hilarious: her four performances of 2015 (Blackout, Office, A Tale of Three Cities) are all in wildly different registers, she’s proving to be not only one of the best but the most versatile actors in the world today) and as convincing as its digital creations are (the integration of the monsters into the live-action fight scenes is very well done, the physics make sense, at least by wuxia standards) it’s lacking the something extra that makes a truly great effects movie. The Tai Chi Zero films have an infectious spirit of comic book lunacy. Journey to the West has a surprisingly profound core of true belief. And 2015’s other great CGI smash hit from a part of the world US film journalists don’t bother to cover, SS Rajamouli’s Telugu epic Baahubali: The Beginning has a wildly imaginative approach to world-building, in both the scenic and narrative senses. Monster Hunt doesn’t have any of that kind of ambition. It’s content merely to be pleasantly, mostly harmless.