Fantasia 2010: IP MAN 2 Review
[Ip Man 2 is screening at the Fantasia Film Festival later today so we take this opportunity to revisit James Marsh's earlier review
of the film.]
IP MAN 2 picks up the action in 1950 as Ip Man, with young son and heavily pregnant wife (Xiong Dai Lin) in tow, arrives in Hong Kong. Ip establishes his own Wing Chun martial arts school but struggles to bring in students, and therefore an income for his impoverished family, until the arrogant, yet inquisitive Wong Leung (Huang Xiaoming) appears. After taking a thrashing, Leung signs up along with a group of his friends and interest finally blossoms for this new fighting style. However, the other martial arts schools, in particular that of Hung Chun Nam (Sammo Hung), are reluctant to let Ip simply set up shop on their turf. When Leung gets into a fight with one of Hung's students (To Yu Hong) and is subsequently held for ransom, Ip Man is forced to face Hung and barter for his release.
As with its predecessor, IP MAN 2 is very much a film of two halves - the first charting the establishment and proliferation of Wing Chun through Hong Kong, thanks to the perseverance and finely-honed skills of its primary advocate. The film wastes no time in getting to the action and within just a few minutes Yen clashes first with Huang Xiaoming, then rival students and street punks, culminating in a fantastic 20-on-1 melee at an abandoned fish market that brings him face-to-face with Hung. This encounter sets up the film's centrepiece sequence, as Ip Man is invited to face all the local martial arts masters and must accept any challenge thrown at him, while fighting the whole time on a large tabletop. If he stays up long enough, he will be granted permission to run his school. Inevitably, this leads to a fantastic clash between Donnie and Sammo, as they unleash their Wing Chun and Hung Kuen on each other, all the while struggling for balance on a teetering table.
It is an incredible sequence serviced by an exceptional lead-in over the preceding hour and the film builds handsomely to this pivotal moment. Unfortunately, it leaves the film with nowhere to go for its second hour, so as with the first film, the action turns its attention to the building tensions between the local Chinese and the foreign governing forces - this time round being the blustering, boorish British, personified by an almost cartoonishly ignorant boxer named Twister (Darren Shahlavi). After he foolishly offends the Chinese during a ceremonial martial arts display, Twister incurs the wrath of Hung. From this point on, IP MAN 2 careens into classic tournament territory, and the unfolding of events bears an uncanny resemblance to those in ROCKY IV. While this does mean the film delivers a couple of big, bloody battles between our leading martial artists and this British bulldog, they fail to live up to the scintillating displays of skill that have come before them, with motivations of pride, dignity and revenge enveloping the final third of the film in melodrama.
IP MAN 2 looks fantastic and does a grand job of evoking the period authentically, lending the film a much-appreciated sense of dramatic gravitas. As with the first IP MAN film, director Wilson Yip is able to use the period setting and high production values to create something more than just another beat-'em up action flick. While characterization is broad and historical accuracy only fleetingly applied, the script nevertheless presents a handful of likable and engaging characters and infuses its story with tension, excitement and a dry wit that ensures it is never less than enjoyable. The film touches on issues of Colonial life - such as the British government's interferences with the media, police brutality and corruption, as well as their general lack of respect for local culture and customs and if at times it feels a little more caricature than genuine historical fact, Yip retains an appropriate balance that gives some context without distracting from the action.
That said, however, the script sadly does a grave disservice to a couple of characters brought over from the first film. Simon Yam's Quan and Fan Siu Wong's Jin are both completely wasted, given nothing to do and in Fan's case not even the opportunity to fight. Whether their roles, which are now entirely superfluous, have been trimmed back, or Yip & Co. simply wanted the actors back on the set, their presence in the film is now as bewildering as it is frustrating.
The rest of the cast are as good as they need to be. Donnie Yen is a beacon of calm and restraint amidst an ocean of social unrest, damaged egos and untamed youthful exuberance. He convinces as a respected mentor and teacher, caring family man and total badass, and even handles tricky onscreen histrionics with a growing confidence and plausibility. Sammo is his usual unflinching rock of awesome, even as his character displays signs of age and weakness, and Hung again serves as action director on the project. Huang Xiaoming is an interesting choice as Leung, Ip Man's first student and instigator in the inter-school scuffles that bring Ip and Hung together. Playing a local Cantonese lad he has sadly been dubbed, and it does make one wonder whether or not someone like Andy On might have been a better choice, but he makes for a charismatic presence nonetheless and appears to hold his own in his fights, even if he is relegated to little more than an onlooker in the film's second half.
The burning question going into IP MAN 2 was always whether or not it would touch on the great teacher's schooling of Bruce Lee. Suffice to say that the question is answered, albeit fleetingly, and suggests that if there is ever an IP MAN 3 it really has no excuses for not tackling that particular relationship head on. For now, however, what we get in large part is more of the same. For the first half at least, IP MAN 2 is every bit as good as its predecessor and although it does slip into more generic, melodramatic territory in its second half, perhaps even at the expense of showcasing the fighting talents of its stars, there is still plenty of top-drawer wing chun and hung kuen action to keep martial arts lovers satisfied. And after all, who are we to begrudge a film for attempting to infuse a bit of story in between its dispersing fists?