Director: Li Li-Ming
Notable Cast: Zhao Wen Hao, Mou Feng Bin, Hao-xuan Li, Shao Xia
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 past.
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 else.
Ip Man: Crisis Time isn’t a good movie, but there’s fun to be had here nonetheless as a piece of modern exploitation.