Putting the kong! in Hong Kong

Ip Man 2: Le­gend of the Grand­mas­ter; kung-fu thriller; rated R; in Can­tonese, Man­darin, and English with sub­ti­tles; CCA Cine­math­eque; 3 chiles

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Where Amer­i­can ac­tion heroes have guns, girls, and a gag­gle of CGI spe­cial ef­fects, Wing Chun mas­ter Ip Man has the wooden pal­let. In a Hong Kong fish mar­ket, he uses the wooden skid to bru­tal ef­fect — ab­sorb­ing the im­pact of ma­chetes wielded by hoods, blud­geon­ing the heads of a ri­val mar­tial-arts gang, and he­li­copter­ing the wooden rec­tan­gle to take out his en­e­mies in or­ders of a half-dozen at a time.

Very loosely based around the life of Yip Man, Bruce Lee’s in­struc­tor and the first per­son to openly teach the mar­tial art of Wing Chun, this film is a de­light­ful, if schlocky, romp around colo­nial Hong Kong. (It’s un­clear why the Amer­i­can distrib­u­tors of this film set­tled on Ip Man for the ti­tle — it’s pro­nounced “Eep Mun.” Judg­ing from post­ings on the in­ter­net, a lot of Amer­i­can au­di­ences seem to think the film is called “I.P. Man,” as if ac­tor Don­nie Yen were play­ing some sort of in­ter­netpro­to­col guru.)

What Ip Man is do­ing in these mar­ket stalls, fend­ing off ri­vals, is try­ing to earn the right to open his Wing Chun school. In Ip Man, the 2008 pre­de­ces­sor to this Chinese-lan­guage ac­tion his­tor­i­cal thriller, Ip Man has been driven out of main­land China and forced to re­lo­cate to Hong Kong in the early 1950s. In this pres­sure-cooker city on the bay, new­com­ers who wish to start a mar­tial-arts school must ba­si­cally fight their way into ac­cep­tance against the lo­cal kung-fu school syn­di­cate or die try­ing.

The first half of the movie chron­i­cles ev­ery block, punch, and fly­ing kick that Ip Man uses in or­der to es­tab­lish his base of op­er­a­tions in Hong Kong. The sec­ond-half sees the mar­tial-arts mas­ter get­ting drawn into a deadly West­ern-box­ing cir­cle run by the Bri­tish colo­nial po­lice. In­evitably, Mas­ter Ip Man must take on the racist Bri­tish boxer Twister (for my money, Driz­zle, Haze, or even Foggy might have been a bet­ter

weather-re­lated name for a U.K. pugilist). There is noth­ing sub­tle about the al­le­gory — the del­i­cate fi­nesse of Chinese mar­tial arts must de­fend it­self against the raw slug­ging of West­ern-style box­ing.

The screen­writ­ing in this movie is min­i­mal, but what’s there is comic and well-timed. The real rea­son to see this film are the fight se­quences, with their mas­ter­ful chore­og­ra­phy of hu­man body move­ment filmed in slowed-down, Ma­trix-style cin­e­matog­ra­phy. Up­turned chairs, din­ing-room ta­bles, and terra-cotta pots are all that is needed to show off the ac­ro­bat­ics of Wing Chun fight­ing tech­niques. Mar­tial-arts stu­dents who watch this film, how­ever, might be dis­ap­pointed at the pre­pon­der­ance of wire-en­hanced fight­ing se­quences in which the mar­tial artists seem to be float­ing around each other like be­lea­guered crows.

Like any ac­tion movie that uses his­tory as its play­ground, there are a hearty num­ber of laugh­able anachro­nisms. I’m not quite sure how strut­ting ring card girls found a worm­hole in time that goes straight from Cae­sar’s Palace in 1995 to a back-al­ley Sino-Bri­tish box­ing match in Hong Kong circa 1950. Nor is it clear why the Bri­tish box­ing an­nouncer seems more skilled at speak­ing Can­tonese than he does in his man­gled at­tempts at speak­ing his English mother tongue.

What makes the movie unique among kung-fu flicks is its will­ing­ness to show its char­ac­ters mak­ing mis­takes. The young mar­tial-arts stu­dents are im­petu­ous, prone to pick­ing fights. The older mas­ters are no less prone to out­sized dis­plays of ego, and some of them are hefty, veer­ing to­ward cor­pu­lence, but still able to flip them­selves in midair and van­quish their en­e­mies. Even the film’s hero, Ip Man, seems to make some ques­tion­able ethic lapses, choos­ing to en­ter deadly com­pe­ti­tions as his preg­nant wife strug­gles to pay rent and their son’s school fees.

There is much that is car­toon­ish about this film. The ac­tors por­tray­ing the Bri­tish colo­nial po­lice force are as wooden as the pal­lets that Ip Man tosses around. Their rather lengthy ap­pear­ance in this movie seems to serve no plot point other than an­nounc­ing the Brits’ on­go­ing ar­ro­gance and ca­sual racism.

But no one is watch­ing this movie for char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment or com­plex colo­nial drama. The real draw is the phys­i­cal py­rotech­nics of Hong Kong ac­tion film­mak­ing. The city’s ac­tion films have long blown away the CGI-aided spe­cial ef­fects of Amer­i­can ac­tion movies. Over the past decade, the films of di­rec­tor John Woo and ac­tor Jet Li have ex­posed this ki­netic moviemak­ing to Amer­i­can film­go­ers. The Ip Man films are among the finest of these en­tries and are aided in their dis­tri­bu­tion ef­forts by their tan­gen­tial con­nec­tion to Bruce Lee.

There’s a new mar­tial in town: Don­nie Yen

How many fin­gers? Wrong! Don­nie Yen, right

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