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The Ending Of Ip Man 4: The Finale Explained

Ip Man is the latest in an ongoing lineage of kung fu action movie characters to transcend a single series of films or even a single performer. First, a number of Hong Kong action movie studios produced films reminiscent of Bruce Lee's kung fu classics starring characters meant to resemble those played by Lee in his run of iconic releases. Then, in 2008, Donnie Yen starred as the titular character in Ip Man, inspiring both direct sequels and other stories about real-life kung fu master Ip Man and the Wing Chun style of kung fu he helped popularize.

Ip Man 4: The Finale was released as a capstone to the Donnie Yen-starring Ip Man series. In its conclusion, Ip Man dies as a result of throat cancer, with which he's diagnosed in the film's opening. Thus, barring any prequels or mid-series sequels, Ip Man 4 marks the final time Donnie Yen will star as the historical character he made famous in popular culture.

In prior Ip Man films, Ip Man combats threats in and around his home. In Ip Man 4, Ip Man travels to San Francisco, where his most famous student, Bruce Lee, has made a name for himself. His exploits abroad in America prior to his death position Ip Man as not just a master of Wing Chun kung fu but as a worldwide evangelist for Chinese martial arts.

The intertwined importance of Ip Man and Bruce Lee

Actor Danny Kwok-Kwan Chan first appeared as Bruce Lee in the Ip Man series in Ip Man 3. The film, among other things, chronicles Ip Man's gradual acceptance of Bruce Lee as his student. At the start of Ip Man 4, Bruce Lee has already become a Hollywood action star. Early on in Ip Man 4, Ip Man travels to San Francisco to look for new opportunities in light of his student's success. This is ultimately significant in that it marks the first time Ip Man takes on the mantle of kung fu master abroad, away from his home country.

Ip Man 4's climactic fight is between Ip Man and a United States Marine named Geddes. Throughout the film, Geddes is openly racist and actively opposes an initiative by another Marine and student of Bruce Lee's to incorporate kung fu into Marine training. Of course, Ip Man defeats Geddes. The Karmic result is revealed in some on-screen text at the film's conclusion: the Marine Corps has integrated kung fu into its training regimen.

Bruce Lee is famous in real life for popularizing kung fu among the world at large through his film work. In Ip Man 4, Ip Man is positioned as similarly significant. His heroics have ultimately overcome not just threats in China as in prior films but also racism abroad. The result is likewise more practitioners of kung fu worldwide.

Ip Man's lasting impact is his legacy

Ip Man's death from cancer in Ip Man 4 isn't inherently significant but merely reflects the manner in which the real-life Ip Man died. That said, the film uses his death as an opportunity to impart the significance of the legacy of both Ip Man as a film character and a real human being.

Among the climactic sequences in Ip Man 4's finale is a montage of clips from prior Ip Man movies. The Ip Man series' incorporation of real-world history has always been loose, so this moment is more a tribute to Donnie Yen than to the historical Ip Man. Given the popularity of Ip Man as a character in subsequent films beyond just those in which Yen stars, the film's final montage foregrounds Yen. His performances as an action movie star in the included scenes are ultimately what inspired a number of imitators.

In Ip Man's final film appearance prior to the news of his death on-screen, he asks his son to film him practicing Wing Chun on a wooden dummy. This moment, by contrast, evokes the legacy of the real Ip Man. The character's final moment in the film is as a teacher. Thus, regardless of his action movie heroics, the film is reminding viewers that Ip Man's legacy is alive today, passed down through those he taught.

The legacies of Ip Man, Bruce Lee, and Donnie Yen form something of a circle. The real Ip Man taught Bruce Lee and others, inspiring through teaching. Bruce Lee then popularized martial arts worldwide through film. Donnie Yen has now both added to Bruce Lee's film legacy and passed on the story of Ip Man to new audiences. The final moments of Ip Man 4 manage to cap off the franchise by reminding viewers of the full, complex scope of Ip Man's legacy.