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Tuesday, Dec 24, 2019 - 22:34 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

IP Man 4

Given that the selection was between a furry fantasy made real, the slow-mo destruction of the venerable Star Wars franchise and this, it wasn't tough to pick out my holiday popcorn companion. Fortuitously released to coincide with the Sino-American trade war wrangle, the fourth and final instalment of Intellectual Property Man has the doughty ethnic hero stare down his toughest nemesis yet; Sure, IP Man may have survived three minutes of no-holds-barred action with Mike Tyson, but can he navigate the suffocating morass that is the Californian high school admissions system?

The producers certainly knew what they were doing with this opportune allegory about the abiding mistrust between the U.S. and China on the enforcement of intellectual property rights, translated into a throwback kung fu genre film set in the Swinging Sixties; wise decision too, because the audience for a one-and-a-half hour lecture on contemporary socioeconomics is probably smaller than that for watching creepy computer-generated cats groom themselves. No, it's either hot chicks or violence or both, and since Margot Robbie was out of their price range, they stuck to what Hong Kong cinema does best, which is to unleash the fists of fury.

The central theme, then, revolves around a suboptimal market equilibrium in information exchange in period San Francisco. On one side, we had the Americans, who had a monopoly over academic instruction: math, science, literature, and a bit of cheerleading on the side. On the other, we had the more-recently-immigrated Chinese, who had a monopoly over various independent yet convergent systems on how to reliably smash their opponents' faces into a bloody pulp. Now, orthodox economic theory informs us that in an efficient world, both sides would release their hoarded knowledge at a reasonable price. Then, we would have the best scholars and bouncers regardless of skin colour, and students would be able to settle arguments through both rhetoric and spinning backheel kicks. This is a win-win for all involved, as far as I'm concerned.

Alas, this scenario did not come to pass, due to reciprocal racial bigotry. IP Man would have his initial petition for his son to join a private academy rebuffed, no thanks to an uncooperative character reference, though the headmistress did display her relative open-mindedness with an offer to open up a spot for the tiny consideration of a ten thousand dollar donation (an obvious jibe at the recent Collegeadmissiongate, methinks). The resident Chinatown kung fu masters were little better, being united against IP Man disciple Bruce Lee's outreach, and refusing to take Caucasian trainees themselves.

Happily, such racist nonsense has largely been resolved in our current more-enlightened era, and so let us proceed to the adjacent observations on an optimistic note:

Manners Maketh Man

I have to say that it warmed the cockles of my heart when Bruce Lee and challengers very graciously took their fight outside the diner that Lee had been conversing in, rather than bust the place up (his first three opponents didn't understand the concept of attacking all at once, as is usual for minions, while big blue weeaboo thoughtfully brought his own nunchucks). This consideration doesn't extend to the average kung fu master - IP Man himself included. All of them seem to harbour a secret fetish for property damage, and yet another perfectly good antique table gets reduced to firewood in this edition. Well, when you've attained the Iron Palm technique, everything looks like a chopping board. Either that, or they're sponsored by a furniture supplier, or rearranging for feng shui.

Minority Messaging

IP Man's rival's daughter invokes the standard go-back set
(Source: stonetoss.com)

IP Man doesn't deviate from the standard Hong Kong cinema (and comics) formula for racial presentation, which tends to portray blacks as bumbling but ultimately good-hearted comic relief, and whites as either basically honourable and upright but somewhat distant superiors (the Marine commander, in this case), or as xenophobic, adversarial and possessed of a superiority complex (almost every other relevant character here). The producers aren't shy about pounding this attitude in either, with clumsy camera cuts to a colored recruit when the gunnery sergeant baddie is spewing racist abuse, all the way to the burning cross symbolism of the Wing Chun dummy (so much for the resurrected Groot cameo, then). This has established the instantly-recognizable Caucasian C-lister caricature in Hong Kong cinema, marked by their wooden one-dimensional acting, by design. It's a living, I suppose.

Illogical Chauvinism

Something felt off when the main baddies of the show - karate practitioners both - took pleasure in deriding kung fu and Orientals, and for very good reason. Karate, one recognizes, had been honed in Japan for barely a century then, being derived from Ryukyuan martial arts, which was itself an offshoot of, that's right, kung fu. Even if these baddies were deficient in their history and general knowledge, surely they would have known that the karate (originally literally 唐手, or "Tang [Chinese] Fist") that they were so proud of had also come from "yellow people"? Of course, this makes sense from the Hong Kong film industry perspective, since a sprinkle of indirect anti-Japanese sentiment has always been an easy sell in their biggest market (though IP Man is ironically getting caught up in an anti-Beijing boycott, in Hong Kong itself)

All Are Equal

It is notable that one of the Chinatown kung fu masters was a lady, although that didn't save her from nearly getting her ribs pounded out through her back (IP Man saved her then), after she accepted the challenge of a marauding karate instructor, because there was no Captain Marvel crap going on here. As it should be, admittedly; she couldn't expect special treatment due to her gender once she got into the ring, surely? Just to make it clear, I'm not against females practising self-defence at all, just that they might consider appropriate tactics and tools - the naginata, for example, compensates reach for strength; there's a reason why "long pointy stick" has dominated battlefields from antiquity well into the age of gunpowder.

Might Makes Right

"Long ago, a martial arts master once said, the purest form of self-defense is to make friends with the enemy out to kill you. Stop the conflict before it can begin. That is the mindset of a martial artist. If you ask me, that's a load of bullshit."

"...Besides, all the people we call masters now, all raised all kinds of hell back in their day, didn't they? And the minute they become old men, they all start talking like they're some kind of saint? That's what I can't stand. We fight because we want to win, right? You and me both."

- Hatsumi Sen, getting real in Kengan Asura

Despite the distance between their cultures otherwise, both the "good guy" and "bad guy" martial artists concur on one issue: the winner justifies his stand. We see this between the two best Chinese kung fu masters in the show, when Wan insists that he will only write a referral letter for IP Man after being defeated, an offer that IP Man accepts without much protest. It was just how things were done. It should be recognized that both main baddies, the instructor and the gunny, took the so-called kung fu masters on fair and square; recall, the instructor beat three masters, barely working up a sweat, before IP Man schooled him, while gunnery sergeant went alone to the masters' association, and crushed half a dozen of them in their own base at once. Considering karate's overall record of like 10-6 over kung fu in the movie (counting Bruce Lee's display too), it's hard to view this as an effective advertisement for kung fu.

Best By Test

And back to real life...

Continuing on from the last point, it should also be remembered that Bruce Lee, kung fu master archetype par excellence in the wider world, had moved on from Wing Chun and its associated traditions too, having formulated the philosophy of Jeet Kune Do, which might be summarized as "whatever it takes to win". While he kept the centreline concept from Wing Chun, the moves were borrowed from all over, kung fu or not, without favour or discrimination. If it works, good, if it doesn't, it was out, whatever the old masters might say. Indeed, modern MMA suggests the superiority of such "mongrel arts", with specialists quickly having to adapt to filling out their deficiencies, whether with their striking or ground game, or just... lose.

Despite IP Man's plug, empirical testing has frankly not cast classical kung fu in a good light; it's really not a racial thing either, with a celebrated Chinese MMA exponent proving his point by taking down self-proclaimed kung fu master after master, to the point that the best counterpoint his detractors could come up with was his loss to a Muay Thai kickboxer. Of course, individual fights are at best anecdotes, but the point is that if kung fu is to claim respect, the most convincing way would be by winning actual competitions. Now, it could be that all expert kung fu masters are too refined to publicly parade their prowess for money. However, it's far more probable that they're simply not very good in a real combat situation, and are instead stubbornly clinging on to their reputation.

To conclude, Intellectual Property Man is disappointing in that its overriding message remains tinted by cultural supremacy. Such thinking has held China back for centuries, and continues to unnecessarily hobble their development even today.

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