The Ip Man movies left out something crucial about the real Bruce Lee, but this was actually a wise decision. The franchise first got rolling in 2008 with Ip Man, in which Donnie Yen portrayed the legendary mentor of Bruce Lee. The film would spawn three sequels along with a spin-off, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, while launching Yen to worldwide stardom.

The series also featured an increasingly greater presence by Bruce Lee, though he always remained a supporting character. First shown as a child at the end of Ip Man 2, where he was played by Dai-Yan Jiang, he would later be seen in Ip Man 3 and Ip Man 4: The Finale, portrayed both times by Danny Chan. Though Lee had a particularly strong presence in Ip Man 4, his appearances in the series consistently left out a key aspect of his life story.


Specifically, the Ip Man series never showed an in-depth look at Bruce Lee training with Ip Man. Instead, the franchise took the approach of Lee being seen at various stages of his life, and being at different phases of his relationship with Ip Man each time, without showing them as master and student. While this would have been a major missed opportunity under normal parameters, the approach that the Ip Man movies were taking made this the right call.

First and foremost, the focal point of the series was always on Ip Man himself, and simply showing him as the teacher of Bruce Lee would have been both predictable and redundant. Ip Man was one of the most famed Wing Chun kung fu masters to ever live, while his relationship with Lee was the most obvious element of his story to gravitate to, but it would have been all too easy for the series to simply boil down to Ip Man building Bruce Lee into the warrior the world knows. Going the opposite direction from this also didn’t just benefit Ip Man’s story, but also that of Lee himself.

Bruce Lee, of course, needs no introduction, and having him as more of a tertiary character for the series made his appearances much more impactful when they happened. First shown as a child eager to learn to fight at the end of Ip Man 2, Lee’s appearances in Ip Man 3 (where, in this context, he’s clearly already had a fair amount of training elsewhere) and Ip Man 4 show him before and after he’s studied with Ip Man. In each case, Lee’s return is anticipated more and more, with the audience excited to see what level he’s at now. By the time of Ip Man 4, he’s shown as Bruce Lee fully realized in the film’s alley fight, one of its standout action scenes.

That isn’t to say that a movie devoted to Lee coming up under Ip Man’s tutelage wouldn’t be engaging, but that also wasn’t the focus of the particular story the Ip Man series was telling. With that in mind, keeping the Lee’s relationship with Ip Man as more of a side element was the best move for it, especially for the role of Lee himself in the series. Every time he showed up in an Ip Man movie, Danny Chan’s Bruce Lee was a scene-stealer, and by keeping his training with his sifu out of the spotlight, it made his every appearance that much more awaited, with the audience eagerly anticipating just how close he was to the Bruce Lee everyone knows and loves each time.

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