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
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