Ip Man 4: Do Kung-Fu Movies Need to be so Nationalistic?

Ip Man comes to America to find a school for his son, and witnesses a huge amount of racism. He uses martial arts to defeat the villains, and claims a victory for the Chinese martial art Wing Chun.

This is the plot of Ip Man 4: The Finale. The final episode of the Ip Man movie series, directed by Yip Wai-shun, presents the last part of Ip’s life, featuring a somewhat fictitious story about combating racism in America. In the film, Ip fights a conservative kung-fu master who refuses to teach non-Chinese students martial arts, a bigoted school bully, karate fighters who mock Chinese martial arts, and, finally, a US military officer who falsely believes Japan’s karate is superior to Chinese martial arts. Donnie Yen, starring as Ip, becomes a hero and saves lives and stands up for justice. The plot is very similar to the previous three movies in the series.

Ip Man 4 also has a substantial role for the character Bruce Lee, the real-life Ip’s most famous student. The movie pictures Bruce Lee as an innovator, combining Chinese kung fu with techniques from other martial arts styles and actively interacting with all students, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds.

According to the producer of the Ip Man series, Yu Dong, while the Ip Man kung fu movie series is officially over, future movies will feature Bruce Lee, often regarded as the most well-known kung fu actor around the world. His previous work shaped not only Chinese cinema, but also represented China in the minds of moviegoers around the world.

The movie plot presents a mix of true and fictitious stories. While the scenes of Ip Man practicing Wing Chun against wooden equipment are based on a true story, his journey to the United States, and his experiences in combating racism targeting Chinese are not entirely real. It is true that in the 60s, racial tensions in America were high and obvious. However, the presentation of these elements in the movie Ip Man 4 is included to advance the storyline and set up an emotional investment in the fight scenes.

Arguably, for kung fu movies, the plot is secondary to the fight scenes. The way Ip Man 4 presents issues related to race as it hurries towards its choreographed violence could be misleading. The film seems to imply the way to combat racism is through violence. And when it comes to the issue of racism, the movie simplifies biases without addressing more systematic factors that led to discrimination and prejudice.

Similar racially charged scenes can be found in Ip Man 2, where a British Hong Kong police officer was the main antagonist. The officer, together with a British boxer, are portrayed as white-supremacists who despise the Chinese in Hong Kong, treating them as cheap labour without compensating their work properly. The movie scenes also pictured them as being rude and constantly using racial slurs against the local Chinese.

In Ip Man 4, karate and the xenophobic Marine officer Barton Geddes become the antagonists. Ip’s ultimate victory seems more like a declaration: Chinese kung fu is at least equal to, if not better than, other martial arts. It feels like a show of reverse bigotry. While Chinese have complained for a long time that characters like Fu Manchu are terrible at representing East Asian diasporas in North America, Ip Man movies are doing the same with non-Chinese.

The Ip Man series has a natural tie with nationalism. From fighting against the Japanese army soldiers invading China during World War II in Ip Man 1, defeating the British boxer in Ip Man 2, and winning numerous battles against racist Americans in Ip Man 4, the movies constantly use language full of hate and bias to instigate negative emotions among the audience. Perhaps the movie wants to advocate for action against racism, but scenes suggesting that a terminally ill kung fu master can take down an active serving marine officer are not helpful for making that point.

In fact, the Ip Man films not only gratuitously slur non-Chinese and manipulate nationalistic feelings to help sell tickets, their representation of Chinese traditional martial arts as superior doesn’t stand up.

Chinese kung fu is under scrutiny after a series of incidents suggesting that many of the self-claimed masters do not have the capability to be competitive in actual combat. Starting in 2017, Xu Xiaodong began his crusade against fake martial arts “masters.” Xu has defeated multiple kung fu masters from the Wing Chun and Tai Chi styles, attracting the ire of Chinese martial arts fans.

Xu’s actions and words have sparked controversies, leading the MMA fighter into legal disputes and raising accusations of censorship. While not everyone likes Xu and his past actions that puncture the reputation of Chinese kung fu, the Beijing-native is making a point through his own fighting record against those masters who rarely face challenges before.

It remains uncertain whether the traditional Chinese martial arts can perform well in MMA-style combat.

Kung fu is certainly an important piece of modern Chinese culture. It is also an excellent way to exercise, stay healthy, and build up strong, positive, and resilient characteristics. However, viewers should be critical about the movies and scenes they see, which manipulate emotions and facts for the sake of a larger box office take.

In Ipman 4, the lead character seems to tackle racism and chauvinism. But after taking it all in, can we help but conclude the filmmaker is trafficking in the very vices that the lead character is supposedly fighting against?