Many of us are familiar with action star Bruce Lee. Before he became famous, he was the first Chinese kung-fu master to bring the Eastern style martial arts to the U.S. and actually teach non-Chinese students. But before that, he was taught and trained in the flurry-of-fists Wing Chun technique by Ip Man.
Bruce asks Ip (pronounced Yip) to come visit him overseas so that he can introduce his students to the grandmaster. However, Ip doesn’t think it’s necessary. He’s perfectly content to let Bruce do his thing in the States while he remains in China with his son, Ching.
But as luck would have it, just as Ip declines Bruce’s invitation, Ching gets expelled from school, and Ip is diagnosed with cancer. Having already lost his wife to the same disease, Ip considers sending Ching to a school in America—the land of opportunity—so that he will have the best chance of success after Ip is gone, too.
So Ip takes Bruce up on his offer and visits the States. However, he quickly discovers that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
In order for Ching to enroll in school, he needs a letter of recommendation from the Chinese Benevolence Association (CBA). But they refuse to give Ip the letter unless he stops Bruce from teaching kung fu to non-Chinese students.
At first, Ip is confused about why it’s such a problem for Americans to learn kung fu. He is told by Wan (head of the CBA) that because he doesn’t live there, he’ll never understand the racial prejudice they face. But after witnessing a young Chinese girl get beaten up by her classmates, Ip starts to believe that America might not be the best place to send his son.
Nevertheless, he’s Ip Man: If you’ve seen the previous three movies, then you already know that even if it’s not his fight, he isn’t going to stand around and do nothing in the face of injustice.
This might be his last battle, but it’ll be the one that alters the course of history.
Ip Man is a peaceful man, only resorting to violence when absolutely necessary. (He also notably tries to deescalate arguments and convince people to stand down in fights to avoid hurting them.) He stands up for the weak, is loyal to his friends and countrymen, and somehow never loses his composure even when being insulted and physically beaten by his enemies.
Ip challenges the CBA to work harder to evoke a change in the American view of Chinese people. He supports Bruce’s efforts to teach non-Chinese students kung fu because he thinks it will help them to understand Chinese culture. He also backs up the other kung fu masters when they are attacked because, as he believes, “All Chinese are one big family.” And after Ip successfully defends them against immigration officers and American supremacists, they realize that he is right.
Ching accuses Ip of not supporting his dreams. He argues with his dad and refuses to take his calls while Ip is in the States. Luckily, Ip eventually sees a similarity between his situation with Ching and Master Wan’s relationship with his daughter, Yonah. Wan hates that Yonah wants to be a cheerleader and keeps trying to force his own ideals on her. He also tells her to just deal with the bullying she experiences at school because of her race. But both fathers realize that they have set impossible standards that they themselves would never have followed and reconcile with their children.
When Wan notices that Ip has a previously injured arm during a sparring match, he puts one arm behind his back for the duration of the fight, evening the odds. When a man is ordered to raid the CBA, he warns them ahead of time, correctly suspecting a setup. Despite his disagreements with the CBA, Bruce hides them from immigration in his training school and helps patch up their injuries.
Although it is not directly mentioned in this film, kung fu is widely associated with Confucianism, which emphasizes personal morality, social correctness, justice, kindness and sincerity—all qualities that Ip embodies.
Someone says, “Speak of the devil.”
A half-clothed woman is seen in the background of one scene, and we see her breasts. Cheerleaders’ bloomers are briefly seen as they perform acrobatic stunts. We see several Marines in their boxers and undershirts.
We see several different styles of martial arts practiced in this film, all of which involves punching, kicking and throwing. Some of these fights are fair matches in which the competitors walk away a little bruised but not seriously injured. Others are clear battles for dominance, resulting in participants going to the hospital with broken bones and bloody faces.
Yonah is cornered by several male classmates at the behest of a jealous girl. They grab her, but she fights back, using the kung fu that her father taught her. Unfortunately, she is still overwhelmed. She hits her head on a metal pole and is slapped in the face several times by the girl. Then they pin her to a fence and cut off her hair. When Yonah makes a final attempt to escape, the girl who started the fight is cut on her cheek with a pair of scissors. Ip Man (who witnessed the fight) eventually catches up and uses less violent techniques (such as grabbing one boy by his ear and another by his nose) to disperse the hooligans, but his arm is injured when a gate slams into it.
Barton Geddes, a Marine drill sergeant, seems to enjoy violence. He sends a karate master to Chinatown during a festival to embarrass the kung fu masters by defeating them all publicly in battle. After he learns that Ip hospitalized the man (he refused to back down even when Ip had him pinned), Geddes attacks the already injured masters at the CBA. He then brings Wan to the Marine training camp and defeats him in a duel before the Marine recruits. And when Ip shows up to defend Wan’s and the other masters’ honor, he relishes the fight.
Ip slaps his son during an argument when Ching brings up his dead mother (an act Ip later apologizes for). Wan slaps his daughter when she lies to him about getting into a fight at school. Ching beats up one of his classmates when the boy steals a comic book from him. He later has his arm stitched up at the hospital. Several martial arts students and masters start fights when they feel their honor has been insulted. Many objects are broken in the battles that ensue. A man uses nunchucks and a metal bar when he starts to lose a fight. A karate practitioner breaks several stone slabs using his wrist. Marines armed with guns stand guard at a gate. Marine recruits are constantly told that they are warriors and killing machines.
When watching Ip Man 4, there are two options for audio. You can watch it in the original Chinese with English subtitles, or you can watch it with English overdubbing. Depending on which version you choose, there are some variances in the profanities heard (or read).
There are three uses of the s-word (although English subtitles show four). We also hear seven uses of “a–,” four of “h—,” three of “b–ch” and one of “a–hole.” There is also one use of “d–n” if you choose English dubbing instead. “Pr–k” is seen in the English subtitles once, although “punk” is the word that is dubbed. God’s name is misused twice (once paired with “d–n”).
We hear several racial slurs referring to Chinese people, including “yellow monkey” and “Chinese savages.” One girl also says that Chinese people have lice. Several Chinese people respond to these insults by calling Americans “white devils,” “whiteys” and “Yankees.” And Yonah calls the girl who attacks her a “stupid blonde” and “pale face.”
Despite being told to quit smoking by his doctor, Ip continues to indulge in his nicotine habit. Other people also smoke cigarettes throughout the movie. A man drinks scotch. The CBA is located next to a liquor store.
Racial tension is nothing new to the Ip Man series (in the first film, Chinese people were often insulted and discriminated against by the Japanese occupying their land), and Ip Man 4 is no exception.
Americans repeatedly discriminate against Chinese people, believing many of them to be criminals (which is the reason Ip needs an official letter of recommendation for his son to attend school). One girl’s father personally tries to have the entire CBA deported after Yonah gets into a fight with her at school. These actions result in many Chinese people feeling negatively towards white Americans and is also the basis for not allowing Americans to learn kung fu.
Geddes repeatedly expresses his disdain for kung fu and forces all of the Chinese recruits to run extra laps after Hartman (one of Bruce’s students and a Marine of Chinese descent) tries to incorporate kung fu into Marine combat training. He also burns the Wing Chun dummy that Hartman brought to the training camp. And despite his claims that he isn’t racist, he goes on and on about American supremacy and the inferiority of other races.
Ching is expelled from school after starting a fight, and we learn that this was not his first incident in being overly “sportive.” And before he realizes that his dad is dying, he is quite rude to him, disobeying Ip and ignoring direct requests.
An earthquake causes damage in Chinatown and frightens many people. A girl forges her dad’s signature.
The entire Ip Man series is based on a true story. Ip lived peacefully in the Chinese city of Foshan until Japanese forces occupied it in 1937. With his family starving and his friends dying at the hands of their oppressors, Ip finally decided to use his Wing Chun kung fu, helping to rally the Chinese people to fight back.
The previous films documented Ip’s life as he moved to Hong Kong, set up a school for Wing Chun, and defeated countless other kung-fu masters and martial arts practitioners, all in the name of justice and peace for his people.
And Ip Man 4 carries on that tradition. Because of his collaboration with the other kung fu masters in San Francisco’s Chinatown, they are able to stop immigration officers from wrongfully deporting their citizens. And because of his student’s efforts to spread kung fu in the States, several U.S. military branches began to incorporate Chinese martial arts into their combat training.
Of course, that isn’t to say the movie doesn’t have problems. San Francisco was the home of the United States’ first Chinatown, and the people who lived there really did face racial discrimination, which is difficult to watch and could even be triggering for audiences who have experienced similar prejudices. And whether you’re watching the film with English dubbing or subtitles, there’s plenty of crude language to go around. There’s also a throwaway shot of a half-clothed woman in the background of one scene.
But honestly, the film’s biggest issue is its violence. While this might be the least violent of the Ip Man movies (it’s the only one where someone doesn’t die from being shot or beaten to death), there’s still a surprising amount of bloodshed. And while the kung fu here really demonstrates why hand-to-hand combat is called martial arts, you just can’t get away from the fact that in the flurry of fists and feet, bones are being broken and people are getting knocked unconscious.
That being said, the film still has plenty of positive elements. Ip Man is just an all-around good guy. He loves kung fu for its discipline and artistry, not for its ability to kick butt. And even when he’s facing down some truly awful people, he remains respectful and kind, giving them every opportunity to tap out and end the fight honorably.
Admittedly, Ip Man 4 comes with some content concerns, but it’s also a heartwarming tale about the guy who trained Bruce Lee, which, combined with some amazing martial arts, makes it a pretty cool movie.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.