REVIEW: DVD Release: Ip Man 2

Film: Ip Man 2
Release date: 7th March 2011
Certificate: 15
Running time: 104 mins
Director: Wilson Yip
Starring: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Sammo Hung, Huang Xiaoming, Darren Shahlavi
Genre: Action/Biography/History/Martial Arts
Studio: Cine Asia
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Country: Hong Kong

The fifth collaboration between director Wilson Yip and leading man Donnie Yen is a sequel to their mega-hit Ip Man - an epic martial arts period actioner that not only established a brand new Hong Kong cinematic folk hero, but also showed a new side of Yen’s acting ability, as well as featuring some of the best Wing Chun kung fu choreography ever committed to film. With Ip Man 2, can they clear their own high bar?

Hong Kong, 1950. Having escaped occupied China, Wing Chun Master Ip Man (Yen) is now living in Hong Kong with his pregnant wife Wing Sing (Lynn Hung) and trying to scrape a living by teaching his art. But in a colonial Hong Kong still suffering the after-effects of war, where water is rationed and the local martial arts masters are charged a protection fee by the British authorities, times are hard, and day after day goes by without a single potential student joining Master Ip’s inconveniently located rooftop school.

This all changes when Wong Leung (Huang), a cocky street-tough, wanders in to see what Wing Chun is all about. After he and his friends are humbled by Ip’s superior skills, they accept him as their Master, and he soon has a flourishing business. However, as a recent arrival to Hong Kong, Ip is not aware that the local martial arts community is a tight-knit, pseudo-Triad overseen by Master Hung Chan-nam (Sammo Hung), who demands that the new Master prove himself a worthy teacher in a series of challenges.

After forming an initially grudging, mutual respect for Master Hung, Ip is disappointed to learn that he demands a monthly protection fee from all martial arts teachers. But Hung, in turn, is under the control of a corrupt British police officer, paying him a protection fee to ensure the kung-fu schools can operate in peace. And when the arrogant boxer ‘Twister’ (Shahlavi) comes to Hong Kong for a tournament, tensions between the oppressed Chinese and the colonial bullies threaten to explode - with Masters Hung and Ip destined to find themselves right in the middle of the fray…

As has been discussed in other reviews of Hong Kong movies on this very site, the fact that there was a quick sequel to Ip Man is hardly a surprise. The first film did great box-office in Hong Kong and China, and picked up a slew of Asian film awards; it was also well-received in international territories, thanks largely to its lavish production values, terrific action sequences, and a charismatic central performance from star Donnie Yen. It precipitated the creation of a small subgenre in Hong Kong films, centred on a real-life martial arts master who had, until then, existed only as a footnote in biographies of the late, great Bruce Lee (his most illustrious disciple) - in between Ip Man 1 and 2 came The Legend Is Born - Ip Man, starring Dennis To (who, somewhat bizarrely, has a cameo in this movie as a troublesome disciple of Sammo Hung’s character) as a younger version of Master Ip; and Tony Leung Chiu-wai has taken the role in Wong Kar-wai’s still-in-production The Grandmaster. But as the first entry in the Ip Man cinematic canon, featuring a career-defining performance from Donnie Yen and endorsement from the master’s son Ip Chun (credited as a technical advisor), Wilson’s Yip’s movie has the distinction of being the closest thing to the ‘official’ and ‘definitive’ Ip Man movie. Hence, the sequel.

Pleasingly, after an initial recap of the first film, Ip Man 2 establishes a measured and deliberate pace, avoiding any temptation to launch into a simple re-tread of its predecessor, or move straight into the action. Like in Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China series a generation earlier (to which Yip’s movies now deserve comparison), the sequel attempts to mine some new storytelling territory from the off. Master Ip is in a new location and a new predicament in the early goings of part two, with new tests of his characteristic dignity and righteous nature. His developing relationship with first student Wong Leung is unlike any dynamic shared with any character in the previous movie, and allows the audience a deeper insight into Master Ip, the man and martial arts philosopher.

Ip Man 2 is at its strongest in its first hour, as it chronicles the establishment and flourishing of Master Ip’s martial arts school, with meditations on the principles of Wing Chun (indeed, both movies serve as a fabulous commercial for this practical and economical self-defence style). And Ip’s rapport with Wong Leung is a more interesting one than any featured in the first movie, as the brash and obnoxious street kid is set on the road to maturity through his martial instruction (in real life, Wong would be the disciple placed in charge of the teenage Bruce Lee’s day-to-day teaching). Yip’s directorial command is much more evident here than in the first film, as he lets the characters build and play off each other, the narrative and emotional arcs developing at a rather gentle pace that nevertheless regularly bursts into scenes of combat that never feel forced or not germane to the story.

1950s Hong Kong is sumptuously created, even if astute and knowledgeable viewers will spot the odd anachronistic detail (a poster advertising the Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay fight being perhaps the most egregious). This is an even bigger production than the first movie, and it is to the filmmakers’ credit that a good portion of the running time is given over to quieter, human drama, rather than wall-to-wall bombastic action. The early sequences of Master Ip, the family man, trying to support his heavily pregnant wife and their son, too embarrassed to chase his young students for the school fees that his life literally depends on, are engaging thanks to the combination of understated acting and Yip’s resistance of showing the poverty of the era with a heavy hand. In its first two acts, Ip Man 2 is that rare beast - a Hong Kong martial arts movie with a dramatic foundation that is genuinely character-based.

Act two sees Yip and screenwriter Edmond Wong move up a gear with the introduction of rival students to Master Ip’s, led by Master Hung, a Hung Kuen (occasionally referred to as Hung Gar) stylist who owns and operates a fish market, and carries himself as much like a Triad kingpin as a martial arts teacher. This again, brings a new character dynamic to proceedings, as he and Master Ip develop a mutual respect for each other’s abilities, while butting heads over their respective approaches to navigating the sometimes difficult and oppressive nature of living under colonial British rule. Master Hung’s deeply conflicted approach, which perhaps involves a soul-destroying modification of his own beliefs and patriotism in an effort to protect his compatriots as best he can, is in direct contrast with Master Ip’s more immovable stance that a martial artist should not accept extortion under any circumstances. It’s a clash born as much out of personality as standard kung fu macho posturing, and is all the more compelling for it.

However, in the middle of act two, the filmmakers attempt another gear-shift - one that is not as smooth as its first. Meandering away from Ip Man to Master Hung, and exploring his dealings with the racist, extortionate British authorities (in the person of Charlie Mayer’s corrupt police officer), the narrative loses focus and leaves its protagonist stranded on the periphery of the main plot, without a real objective of his own, other than to preserve his integrity. Thus, when Master Hung’s bullying students pick a gang fight with Ip’s disciples, the resulting ruckus lacks the weight of earlier action scenes.

The script sacrifices its more interesting story to become a rather more familiar Chinese vs. Evil Oppressor narrative, which is perhaps disappointing coming off the back of a first hour pleasantly devoid of the broadly caricatured foreign figures that have been turning up all-too regularly in recent Chinese-language action movies. Personified by Darren Shahlavi’s ‘Twister’, a hulking boxing champion with an air of the period gangster about him, the British colonialists are quickly introduced as the enemy - Twister’s flagrant disrespect for ‘Chinese boxing’ sets in motion a chain-of-events that will result in a brace of hard-hitting, inter-discipline duels that see the righteous Chinese heroes stand up for the honour of their country and its martial arts traditions.

Not only is this story’s change of direction a little disappointing because it is what we might expect from a more basic Hong Kong martial arts film, but it is also - as was the depiction of the Japanese in part one - somewhat troubling for the viewer. A sense of nationalism in Hong Kong/Chinese cinema is nothing in new, but as the world moves further and further away from the eras depicted in period films, it is both fascinating and bizarre to witness the gusto with which certain Chinese filmmakers present broad, ugly caricatures of past-oppressors in the name of bolstering contemporary national pride and identity. If anything, Ip Man 2 represents a deepening of this ‘problem’ – the first film’s principal villain, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi’s General Miura, at least had a recognizable sense of warrior’s honour and respect for Ip Man; his desire to fight him born more out of a need to test himself against a credible opponent than any sense of oppression. No such element is afforded to Shahlavi’s ‘Twister’, whose personality outweighs even his heavyweight physique, and remains a rather one-note villain. This is not to take away from Shahlavi, who works hard in the role (especially in the combat scenes), but is not afforded the screen-time or nuance to flesh out his antagonist, as the filmmakers take no chances at all that the audience won’t be clamouring for the defeat of the ‘gwailo’.

But if Ip Man 2 strikes an inconsistent balance between its first and second hours, it scores consistently - and consistently high - in the other areas that matter. Once again, Donnie Yen delivers a terrific performance, building on the quiet grace that so surprised long-time admirers in the first movie, and adding to it a sense of dignity that is both appealing and, occasionally, affecting. The early scenes with Ip Man sitting quietly, smiling through the frustration of having a school with no students, are rather poignant, and ensure that even newcomers to the Ip Man legend will accept him as their hero right from the off. Yen is destined to become as synonymous with this role as Jet Li was with Wong Fei-hung.

As the conflicted Master Hung, Sammo Hung brings all of the weight and gravitas acquired over his nearly five decades in the fight film industry, commanding the screen and audience as easily as he does the kung fu masters and students he oversees. Huang Xiao-ming is engaging and appealing as the hot-headed Wong Leung, even if the character is the most disserved by the story shift, more or less disappearing from the film in the second half. Throughout the cast, there are pleasing guest appearances from returning faces like Fan Sui-wong and Simon Yam - and if their various scenes don’t always feel absolutely essential to Ip Man 2’s core narrative, their presence is nevertheless a clear indication of the filmmakers’ attempt to create not your usual quick cash-in, but a bona fide martial arts saga, which lends both films an invaluable sense of prestige.

As action choreographer, Sammo Hung has much more to work with than he did previously, staging a series of unique and thrilling battles, pitting Ip Man’s Wing Chun style against a variety of other disciplines, most notably Hung Kuen and Western boxing. His work here exceeds that of the first movie, and his collaboration with cinematographer Poon Hang-sang (veteran of Jet Li’s Fearless, among other notable entries in the genre) makes thrilling use of Kenneth Mak’s gorgeous production design - the highlight being the table-top fight between Ip Man and Master Hung. Unique, inventive and thrilling in its conception and execution, it is a worthy successor to the actors’ maiden dust-up in Yip’s earlier Kill Zone, and another reminder of Hung’s genius with staging action scenes.

Ip Man 2 is not without its issues and flaws, but in broadening out the canvas of the mythology, Wilson Yip has crafted a sequel that deserves comparison with the Once Upon A Time In China series. What next for part three? Should Donnie Yen overcome the trepidation he has expressed in interviews about trying to top his work in part two? Tantalisingly, there remains at least one more relationship to extract from the Ip Man mythology - the one between Master Ip and his teenaged disciple, Bruce Lee. In a splendid coda to Ip Man 2, this story is teased when a precocious youngster swaggers into Master Ip’s school and requests to be taken on as a student. Played by Jiang Dai-yan - a child actor who not only bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Lee at that age, but also a fine flair for mimicking the ‘Little Dragon’s’ signature mannerisms - Lee’s appearance is a crowd-pleasing one. In fact, one may even go as far as saying that it begins to deliver on an unspoken promise to audiences (especially international) that the Ip Man films would, to some extent, explore the early life of the martial arts movie legend. Given that Lee’s name has been used prominently in the two films’ promotion, it seems only fitting that he make an appearance, and - for all the flaws in the narratives of the first two films - a final movie focusing on the positive effect martial arts teaching had on a young icon-in-waiting who was, at that stage of his life, something of a troublesome delinquent is entirely desirable. Reportedly, image rights issues with Lee’s estate prevented the filmmakers from featuring him more prominently in this film, but one would hope these are resolved if and when Yen and Yip decide to conclude their trilogy.

Builds upon the groundwork of part one, and exceeds it in the areas most audiences will care about - acting, production and action. If the depiction of foreigners remains an issue in the genre, it should nevertheless not obscure the fact that Ip Man 2 is supreme, peerless entertainment where it counts. JN

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