Tuesday, September 17, 2013

IP MAN 2 (2010)

Now that I've seen Wong Kar-wai's long awaited portrait of the Wing Chun master and "teacher of Bruce Lee" Ip Man, The Grandmaster, it's past time that I caught up with the Wilson Yip's sequel to his award-winning biopic from 2008. Because Wong had announced his intentions long ago, Yip's Ip Man struck some as an exploitation piece designed primarily to beat Wong to theaters, as it did by a wide margin. The awards it received suggested that Yip's picture was something more than exploitation. I found it a well-crafted, crowd-pleasing period piece influenced as much by Ron Howard's Cinderella Man in its focus on an impoverished hero as by admittedly obvious Chinese influences. If there's a Hollywood influence on Ip Man 2, I'm afraid it's something less lofty. Think Rocky IV rather than Cinderella Man -- though, admittedly, pitting kung fu heroes against foreign hulks is nothing new in Chinese cinema.

The first half of the sequel is more interesting. Yip picks up Ip Man's story in postwar Hong Kong, where our hero (Donnie Yen) struggles to make a living teaching Wing Chun to a skeptical population. Contrary to The Grandmaster, Ip's wife has made it across as well, with a baby on the way. Long days pass with nothing to do but sit and smoke and banter with the landlady on his rooftop training facility, until one young punk, Wong Leung (Huang Xiaoming) shows up to challenge the newcomer. He learns about Wing Chun the hard way, but comes back with some buddies to learn more. After Ip handles them all with ease, they become his disciples. Mrs. Ip has to gently remind him to remind them to pay regularly so they can meet the rent on both the school and their home.

A pensive Donnie Yen on one of Ip Man 2's atmospheric sets,
setting a poor example of discipline with that cigarette in his hand but definitely scoring period authenticity points.

Ip soon runs afoul of the Hong Kong martial arts establishment. A Hung Kuen fighter challenges Leung; his buddies dogpile the Wing Chun acolyte and take him prisoner, demanding ransom from the new master. Ip liberates Leung and routs the Hung Kuen goons, but now has to deal with their master. Master Hung (fight choreographer Sammo Hung) lays the law down; he and his peers will onl allow Ip to teach if he accepts their challenges. Once Ip has done this, humbling some of Hung's cronies and fighting the big man himself to a standstill, the law gets laid down again. Ip may have earned the right to teach, but he still better pay his dues to the martial arts association. There's often something gangsterish about martial arts schools in genre films, and that quality stands out strongly in the first half of Ip Man 2. Ip refuses to pay, but an ultimate reckoning with Master Hung is forestalled by events beyond his control.

At a low point in Ip's new career, after the Hung Kuen goons have provoked an incident leading to his eviction from his school, the film goes soft on Master Hung and the association. It reveals that the local masters have been more or less forced into a protection racket by a corrupt official of the British colonial administration who pockets the money Master Hung collects.  This official aspires to be a fight promoter of some sort, and toward that end he brings a British boxing champion, "Mr. Twister" Milo (Darren Shalavi) -- that's how his name is spelled on posters in the movie, though the subtitles call him Miller at one point. Upon his arrival, Ip Man 2 reverts to the form of the first Ip Man, pitting the hero against a foreign oppressor. The British in Hong Kong may not have been as atrocious as the Japanese on the mainland -- the Brits did most of their damage back during the Opium Wars of the 19th century -- but for Wilson Yip the essential offense is the same: foreigners are disrespecting China and its culture. Twister crashes a martial-arts exhibition staged prior to his own appearance and starts thrashing the performers, behaving more like a professional wrestler than a boxer of the period. This outrages Master Hung, who challenges him to an MMA bout on the spot. In case you were wondering, this is the Rocky IV part of the film, when the superhuman foreign beast destroys the old champion to give the hero more incentive to fight.

The film can only end one way: Ip Man vs. Twister in the center of the ring. The fight itself can only end one way, despite British efforts to rig it by changing the rules midway and forbidding Ip from throwing kicks. The fight and its cultural stakes are what separate the Ip Man films from The Grandmaster. Wong Kar-wai might well be accused of making movies mainly for the global arthouse audience, but it's clear that Wilson Yip's primary audience consists of Chinese people who want to see an arrogant gwailo humbled and their own honor upheld. The Grandmaster is introspective, using kung fu as an allegory for China coming to terms with itself during the 20th century. The Ip Man films are populist, affirming Chinese identity through victory over oppressors. The latter approach will seem distasteful to non-Chinese viewers who may see these as xenophobic films, but Wilson Yip's approach isn't necessarily artistically inferior to Wong's -- especially if we compare the two stories as martial-arts films.

While Yuen Woo-ping, The Grandmaster's fight choreographer, has made martial-arts more like superhero action ever since The Matrix,  Sammo Hung still works in the dynamic style he helped make famous as a performer in the 1980s and 1990s. The fighting in Ip Man is not that much more realistic than the fights in The Grandmaster -- the venerable Sammo relies on wirework for many of his own tricks -- but it always feels more grounded and visceral. Dare I say it: he (and Wilson Yip) treat fighting in more cinematic fashion than Yuen and Wong. In the two pure martial-arts set-pieces, as opposed to the fights with Twister, Sammo clearly thinks in terms of sight gags rather than pictorial composition, whether he's finding numerous ways for Ip to use a shipping palette as a shield or weapon or exploiting his own weight when Master Hung leaps onto a table and nearly catapaults Ip over his head. On a simpler level, Yip holds shots longer than Wong does, allowing Donnie Yen and the other fighting actors to impress us with legitimate physical skills. In many ways, Ip Man 2 is a livelier film than The Grandmaster. Martial arts may seem like the way that should make the most difference, but we should still concede that Wong's film, even in its somewhat discombobulated American form, often goes in directions more interesting than those Yip chooses, and that while Donnie Yen is not necessarily an inferior Ip Man to Tony Leung, The Grandmaster's Ziyi Zhang is easily the best performer in either film. If two films on the same subject can be an apple and orange, we have them here. To each film fan his (or her) own.

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