Ip Man 2 Review
You've heard of Bruce Lee, right? 70s martial arts icon; died young under suspicious circumstances during completion of his best movie (Game of Death); changed the cinematic world of martial arts forever (finally breaking through to Western audiences); and left behind his own invented Jeet-Kune-Do martial arts legacy. His son, Brandon Lee, went on to follow in his footsteps - a little too closely - also dying young under suspicious circumstances during the filming of the role that would finally, posthumously, catapult him into stardom (The Crow). Bruce Lee is a worldwide martial arts phenomenon; the go-to comparison for any martial artist there has ever been ever since. There have been endless debates about his skills, his relatively low black belt ranking (he may have created his own martial art, a derivation of Wing Chun, but he also died so young that he never even got to half the ranking of someone like Steven Seagal), and his questionable ability to act (despite a decent amount of charisma) but few will argue that his seminal fight with Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon, his fun, semi-Westernised Enter the Dragon escapade, and his relentless pyramid of end-of-level-bad-guys in Game of Death are not all must-see martial arts moments.
Lee was trained by the senior pupil of Grandmaster Ip, who was the man that truly brought the martial art form of Wing Chun into popular use. Ip Man was the kind of martial arts master that Bruce Lee could have grown up to be, had he lived another 30-40 years. Born into a wealthy Foshan family in 1893, he learnt martial arts at an early stage, although he did not officially start training others until many decades later. During the interim period, the world having survived one World War was on the brink of a second, with the Japanese invading China during the thirties and causing the Chinese a whole lot of grief. Ip Man himself found his whole comfortable way of life turned upside down by the invasion and the chaos that ensued. In 1949, after the end of the Dynastic reign and the formation of the People's Republic of China, Ip Man left Foshan to go further South and live in Hong Kong. Then still a British colony, the Chinese may have escaped Japanese oppression there, but they were not exactly chuffed with the pompous Brit presence. It was there where financial strain would finally compel Ip Man to found his first martial arts school, and teach Wing Chun. And it was there where, in his 60s, that he met a certain young man called Bruce Lee.
Despite his obvious popularity in China, Ip Man is comparatively unknown in the West, although numerous high profile Eastern Directors have sought to change that fact over the last few years. Wong-Kar-Wai, who has done a series of internationally acclaimed dramas with top actor Tony Leung (including In the Mood for Love and 2046), has been trying to make a film entitled The Grandmaster for over a decade. With Leung in the lead as Ip Man, it has been in production hell for the last few years, and in that time, another Director, Yip Wai-Shun, who has been busy working on a series of action-thrillers with Martial Arts man-of-the-moment Donnie Yen, decided to make a trilogy about the life of Ip Man, with Yen as the star.
The first film, simply entitled Ip Man, showed the Master's origins on the streets of Foshan, establishing his skills as a fighter and his reluctance to take violent action. Still, it remained only loosely biographical, telling us a little bit about the man, but focussing mainly on the fighting (obviously) and also on the political backdrop. Often seen as a overt piece of anti-Japanese propaganda, it is easy to see why viewers came to this conclusion, the production team taking the historical fact that Ip Man refused to train the Japanese in Kung Fu, to the exaggerated fictional level at which he is then forced to battle numerous Karate masters, and then fight in a grand tournament against the seemingly unstoppable best Japanese fighter, with his whole country's pride at stake.
Ip Man 2 picks up exactly where the first film left off, with Ip Man leaving his home town of Foshan and moving to Hong Kong, where he recovers from his injuries and lives with his pregnant wife and first son. With finances a problem, he attempts to set up a martial arts school on the roof of the building in which he lives, and after proving his amazing skills against a bunch of young punks, he eventually adopts them as his own students. Unfortunately his burgeoning practice gains the unwelcome attention of Hung, the head of the other local martial arts clubs, who refuses to acknowledge his form of fighting - Jeet Kune Do - or status as a martial arts Master, until he can defeat a succession of fellow masters in tournament. Despite this infighting, the true eventually enemy reveals itself as being the greedy British Colonials who have decided to set up a boxing tournament with their prize champion, Twister, in order to prove their might over the supposedly inferior Chinese form of fighting. Will Ip Man and Hung be able to put aside their differences in order to defeat this white ghost and boost the nation's pride once again?
Now if you're a fan of martial arts at all, or even of Chinese history (to a certain extent) then you should definitely go out and pick up the double pack of these two movies: they are stylish, well-constructed period pieces, packed with outstanding, authentic martial arts and top performances. And they are both grounded in a rich historical period (even if they do veer too much in the direction of propaganda). Wilson Yip-Shun may not have provided a particularly insightful look at the life of this popular Chinese figure, but it is still very respectful, and it manages to remain both authentic in feel and dramatic in story evolution. And, of course, there is absolutely no way you could be disappointed by the martial arts on offer.
For those familiar with the first movie, there is absolutely no doubt that you must see this second instalment. It may follow exactly the same overall story arc (they both chart Ip Man's reluctance to involve himself in fighting; his initial confrontation with a fellow mainlander - with whom he will eventually form some mutual respect; and his final confrontation with outside forces: in the first movie it was the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War, here it's the British, during the Colonial occupation of Hong Kong), but the different location, different characters and specific plot progression somehow still manages to feel fresh and engaging in its own right. The silly cartoony British villains are perhaps the only let-down, coming across as pure caricatures, and not in the least bit imposing, unlike the Japanese counterparts in the first instalment. Still, arguably the boxer that Ip Man finally has to fight is quite a solid opponent - he may act like an utter twat (along with the rest of the Brits represented here), but he sure looks like he can deal some damage. And all of that only makes you root of the reserved, heroic Ip Man even more.
Honestly, having seen these movies, it is hard to think of anybody else who could have given us a more well-rounded Ip Man than martial arts superstar Donnie Yen. It has taken the best part of two decades for him to finally start getting the kind of roles he deserves, and arguably at least some of the fame and attention that he deserves too. He's definitely got the ass-kicking skills exemplified by the best of his counterparts (Jet Li, Bruce Lee) but he also has a fair amount of acting talent and more than enough charisma to put him in the same league as Jackie Chan, Wesley Snipes or Van Damme (watch him in his native language - French - in JCVD before you dismiss his acting skills entirely). I find it somewhat ironic that now, in his late forties, Yen has finally found the perfect role in playing a martial arts legend - Ip Man - who, himself, has gone largely unnoticed until now. Yen captures not only the amazing skills that you would expect from this Grandmaster, but also the unassuming, reserved and respectful demeanour that he had a reputation for. It's a powerful role, the culmination of 20 years of hard work in the movie industry.
And now for the bad news: although the Ip Man story was originally intended to form a trilogy, Yen has officially stated that he will not return to the role for another instalment. But I don't think it's the wrong decision. What with Wong Kar-Wai's interpretation of the same story looming on the horizon, and with the power and strength of these two stories, I just do not think that they could top this all, or even provide a closing chapter that stands up to what has come before it. Honestly, they've covered all of the most important parts of this man's life, during the two most historically interesting periods: the Japanese invasion and the British oppression. A third story could only hope to continue with the British theme, thereby undermining the climax of the second movie. And its focus would have to be more on the training of Bruce Lee, something which Ip Man himself - allegedly - did not actually do much of, mostly overseeing him as one of the many members of the club that he ran. That was originally supposed to be a part of this story, but it sounds more like a part of Bruce Lee's biography, than Ip Man's.
I'm glad they left it here, and went out on a high. This is a solid sequel that stands up to comparison with the original and provides the same heavy fight quotient (with arguably even grander setpieces), the same excellent cast (Simon Yam and Fan Siu-Wong briefly reprise their roles from the first movie) as well as some tremendous newcomers. Huany Xiaoming plays Wong Leung, Ip Man's first real pupil (and the guy who actually did most of Bruce Lee's mentoring), and Brit actor Darren Shahlavi manages to be suitably irritating as the arrogant, nasty Brit boxer, Twister. Then there's the great Sammo Hung, that unstoppable dynamo semi-sumo-built beast who did the fight choreography on both movies, and here gets to play Ip Man's rival club boss, Master Hung. Sammo and Yen previously paired on the excellent SPL (known internationally as Killzone), also under the same Director, and seeing them fight is - in itself - a reason to buy any movie. Although Sammo had heart problems just before filming, and apparently feels that he did not put in his best fighting performance, it is difficult to recognise this on-screen, and his fight sequences - both with Yen and with the Brit boxer - remain high points of the movie.
Ip Man 2 comes strongly recommended. The silly Brit villains aside (it's always nice to remember that, according to movie 'history', we Brits really were a pretty nasty and weasley bunch to just about everybody else in the world), it remains a strong sequel which builds on the same ideas as the original, but develops them with some different and colourful characters, and the same unquestionably entertaining succession of action set-pieces featuring the resoundingly talented Donnie Yen, at the peak of his career. Recommended.