Sunday, 20 March 2011

Ip Man 2 (2010)

Sammo Hung, pushing 60 and still kicking ass.
Shame on you, Seagal.

Ip Man
was a pretty great kung fu film and a big international success, so it's not surprising that they made both a sequel and a (Donnie-Yen-less) prequel. The sequel picks up a few years after the first film, with Ip Man and his family packing up their shit and moving to Hong Kong, where Ip Man hopes to open up a kung fu school and teach Wing Chun. His first student is a cocky young guy named Wong Leung (Huang Xiaoming), who agrees to call him master only after he defeats him and his friends in a fight. Ip Man is still untouchable, so soon he has a modest class of students. Still no money, though; he refuses to press his students for tuition payments even though he is destitute and his wife is up the duff.

So, like in the first film, Ip Man is a really nice guy, always trying to talk his way out a confrontation instead of getting into a fight. When Wong gets kidnapped by some rival students Ip Man is unwilling or unable to pay, but he still shows up to their hideout and tries to talk his way out. Jin Shan-Zhou (Fan Siu-Wong), a villain from the first film but now reformed, helps them escape. Now Ip Man finds himself an enemy of a coalition of kung fu schools, led by Master Hong (Sammo Hung).

Sammo Hung choreographed the excellent fights in the first film, so it's pretty cool to see him get a major role in the sequel. The highlight is during a scene where Ip Man is forced to fight all the masters of the different kung fu schools on a rickety tabletop without being knocked to the ground. I was very impressed by the Donnie Yen/Sammo Hung fight in 2005's S.P.L., and this rematch is just as impressive. There's a fair bit of wirework and creative editing, but that's understandable given Hung is pushing 60.

One of the things I liked about the first film was the relationship between Ip Man and his wife. It was a little more progressive and enlightened than I'm used to seeing in kung fu films, even if it did end with her realising that his kung fu is what's really important. Lynn Hung is still here, but she spends most of the movie in the background, pregnant and penniless. The "kung fu > family" message is re-iterated at the end, and this time she even refuses to let him know when she goes into labour because it would interrupt his training. She even gives birth while he is fighting. I don't know where they can go from here. Maybe for the next film she can throw one of their babies in the ring to distract his opponent.

Despite that, family is still a theme. Simon Yam has a small returning role as Ip Man's friend Zhou, who has since been shot in the head by the Japanese and is now a mentally deficient street bum, being cared for by his son as best he can. Fan Siu-Wong is now a good guy, attributing his change of heart to getting married and having kids. Sammo Hung has a whole bunch of kids and after he almost knocks over a fat little kid licking a huge lollipop, Ip Man manages to squash their beef by convincing him that family is more important than their grudge match.

With the Hong/Ip Man conflict resolved, they introduce the main villain, a Western boxing champ named Twister. Yes, like the first film it's about protecting the dignity of the Chinese from attacks by vicious foreigners, and if anything it's even more shamelessly nationalistic. It's not hard to see why this film got the rubber stamp of approval from the Chinese goverment. I mean, we are talking Rocky IV levels of heart-swelling patriotism.

Usually I can put up with this kind of thing (God knows Hollywood has produced worse propaganda) but somehow this one made me feel a little icky. At least with the first film there were some honourable Japanese to offset the villainous ones; here the British are almost uniformly evil. After Twister kills an opponent in the ring the British are more upset about bad publicity than anything else, and give a press conference where Twister makes a condescending speech about how the Chinese are too weak to withstand Twister's mighty punches.

At some stage I heard that this film was going focus on the relationship between Ip Man and Bruce Lee, but he only gets a tiny cameo at the very end, like Nick Fury appearing at the end of Iron Man. Wong brings a very young Bruce Lee to see Ip Man about training, but Ip Man tells him he is too young and that he should come back when he's a little older. The kid copies all of Lee's mannerisms, including the cocky chin tilt and the thumb-flick, and to be honest it's a little over-the-top. At least they didn't dress him in giant sunglasses and a Game of Death yellow jumpsuit. Actually no, that would have been kind of cool.

When I reviewed the first film I said that it would be a pretty enjoyable biopic even without all the awesome kung fu fights, but I'm not sure I can make the same claim about the sequel. In a lot of ways it's just a rehash of the same plot. The acting is still good and it's hard to ignore the greatness of the fights, but the drama just didn't grab me by the balls. Maybe just one ball, and even then it was the kind of weak and feeble grip unworthy of any Wing Chun practitioner. Hopefully the next film will be a two-fisted, ball-crushing death grip.

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