Director: Li Li-Ming
Notable Cast: Zhao Wen Hao, Mou Feng Bin, Hao-xuan Li,
As an individual that grew up in the boom of direct to home
video market, I definitely do not have qualms with low-budget cinema that aims
to exploit specific trends or topics. This is why I wrote an article on the
Ipsploitation genre over at 36 Styles in defense of Ip Man: Kung Fu Master.
A defense that has certainly earned me some criticism. You’re welcome to weigh
in yourselves by following this LINK. Still, for the most part, I’m all for a
‘cash in' in the cinematic sense and I think it allows for some intriguing
watches for the more curious folks exploring genre films.
The director of the previously mentioned Ipsploitation film,
Li Li-Ming, had a previous run at the genre with the film Ip Man: Crisis
Time. For those who have seen Kung Fu Master and thought it was a
total ‘in-name-only’ cash grab at snagging some bucks from fans of the Wai Son
Yip and Donnie Yen franchise, boy, are you in for a ride with this effort. Ip
Man: Crisis Time is barely a film in any relation to the cinematic
character representation of Bruce Lee’s teacher, but it’s surely a film
converted into an Ip Man film at some point after its initial creation.
Crisis Time focuses on a teen Ip Man, caught in a hostage situation as terrorists seize a building filled with students during an English speech competition. Although they claim to
seek a monetary reward, their real goal is to capture the son of the police
commissioner for more nefarious reasons. It’s up to a teen Ip Man to step up and stop the terrorists,
uncover a larger plot, and discover that the leader may be a figure from his
Made for the online streaming service, iQIYI, one can tell
almost immediately that Ip Man: Crisis Time is a lower budget film. From
the manner that it’s shot, which has a bit of that soap opera look, to the
overall production designs, the film looks cheap. It’s limited settings, since
it’s centered in and around one building for the majority of the film, and
smaller cast lend itself to keeping the budget down. Keeping that in mind helps
a lot of its weaker elements seem more like par for the course instead of major
detriments compared to many of the other Ip Man films. Still, it should
be noted because this film simply feels like it's trying to do a lot with
relatively little and some of its choices are definitely made to keep its
budget down rather than what’s best for the story or characters.
With that foundational mindset laid, there are a handful of
things to address in Ip Man: Crisis Time. The film seemingly has very
little to do with Ip Man’s “true life” (which is kind of a moot point for me
anyway) and it definitely has this family friendly kung fu tone to most of its
choices. A teenage Ip Man, played with a slightly wooden approach by Zhao Wen
Hao, and his secondary love plot and rivalry with a good friend who ends up
joining the terrorists, is very much a key part of this choice. It’s very
family friendly. Not to mention, much of the plot could easily stand on its own
had the lead character been named anything different.
Outside of Zhao, the performances are widely hit or miss and
even the villain of the film, who is diving headfirst into the melodramatic
zone of good guy made sad boi turned evil, seems to relish in the fact that he
gets to ham up everything beyond reason. Part of the problem with Crisis
Time is that the balance between the silliness and drama is never solved
and it falls too heavily on one side or the other. Neither the script nor the
director can craft the tonal shifts to make it all work smoothly. This is most
obvious in the performances, but it’s a factor throughout the film.
Now, as I mentioned in my defense of Ip Man: Kung Fu
Master, director Li-Li Ming has one thing really working for him as a
director. It’s not the performances, it’s not the reliance on tropes in its
storytelling, and it’s not his ability to pull strong moments from the script.
It’s definitely the action. While the majority of Crisis Time is a
substandard teen drama that misses many of the key points, the action in this
film is impressively solid and easily the reason to watch the film. The
choreography is tightly crafted, the action set pieces are dynamically shot,
and they’re fantastically diverse for a film crafted on the cheap. The villain
has two henchmen and both fight sequences, the latter one features Ip Man
teaming up with a buddy to fight off the baddie in classic kung fu fashion, are
a blast to watch.
Ip Man: Crisis Time is hardly the best of the
Ipsploitation boom currently and it might be one of the worst, in all honesty.
Its teen story and character approach are a fun angle, but they are one that
tends to run thin without the writing to flesh out the subplots and characters.
The most intriguing portion of the narrative is the villain’s backstory and
part of me really wanted to see that movie instead. However, with its brisk 77-minute
run-time that uses most of it to deliver a series of surprisingly enjoyable and
well-crafted action set pieces, it’s hard to call Crisis Time a full-on
misfire. Li Li-Ming remains a fascinating director for his ability to create
silly, fun Ipsploitation films and I would love to see him work on something
Ip Man: Crisis Time isn’t a good movie, but there’s
fun to be had here nonetheless as a piece of modern exploitation.