In the very first fight sequence in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man (2008), the titular hero (played perfectly by Donnie Yen) faces off against a rival. Making the most minimal of gestures, the Wing Chun master Ip Man stands perfectly straight, his spine stiff and unbending, even during the spectacular drubbing he gives his opponent.
In the Ip Man series, Donnie Yen embodies (dare I say it?) Oriental discipline, and I use that term with all the East Asian cultural baggage it implies. He’s the very picture of studied equanimity, and with his hair cropped closely to his skull, and his somber black robes, he’s actually far more reminiscent of a monk — not a Shaolin monk, but you know, the other kind.
Part of the movies’ charm is his deadpan and unruffled demeanor, almost to the point where the audience starts shifting uncomfortably in their seats. In Ip Man, a mob of unruly fighters from out of town (aren’t they all?) barge into his home while he and his family are having dinner, and his response is simply to wave them off with his hand and walk away. (Of course, the intruders don’t, and another living-room bout ensues.)
I know little about martial arts from what I see in the movies — man, I do miss the UC Theater and the Great Star, where I saw a bunch of these — but the fight choreography is distinctive (and we have the great Sammo Hung to thank for this). Yen’s calm and unruffled demeanor is in direct contrast to, say, Ip Man’s former real-life student Bruce Lee’s feline power Jet Li’s boyish charm, and Jackie Chan’s daredevil buffoonery. It’s difficult imagining Jackie Chan, for instance, as the still moral center of any film, but that’s what Donnie Yen accomplishes here.
There’s one scene Ip Man 2 in particular that reminds me, hypothetically, of these contrasts, where Ip Man faces off with the other Hong Kong fight clubs on a tabletop surrounded by upside-down chairs. The winner is the fighter who remains on top of the table, or at least until a joss stick has burned out. (One older participant shakes his head and remarks, “Why, in the old days, those chairs would be knives.”)
I couldn’t help but think that in a different movie the chairs would be stacked to the ceiling, with Jet Li whirling around at the top; Jackie Chan would have smashed them all over people’s heads. But in Ip Man 2, the chair-breaking is almost polite, as befitting a man of dignity.
It’s precisely this dignity and gravity that’s missing from Ip Man 2. In the first film one had the sense that the stakes were so much higher: Master Ip wasn’t just fighting for his life, but for an entire people subjugated by the Japanese.
In Ip Man 2, the bad guys are represented by a cartoonishly boorish bunch of Englishmen with hard-to-place accents and harder-to-fathom acting. The improbably-named boxer, Twister (Darren Shahlavi), whose trash talk and arena walkout is straight out of the WWF playbook, doesn’t seem a particularly worthy opponent for Master Ip. He’s all sinew and hot air, and making Twister more and more annoying is the screenwriter’s crude way of making the audience care about his defeat. It’s just not the same as fighting a Japanese general who has the populace under his iron hand.
I had initially characterizedIp Man 2 as having “shoddy plotting” on Facebook, but my buddy Valerie reminded me that “plotting isn’t the priority” for movies like these. Ok, I take it back — Ip Man 2 has lazy screenwriting, really, because the structure is almost exactly like that of the first Ip Man, though in slightly different order:
- A series of scenes that display contrasting Chinese fighting styles
- Ip Man trains a growing bunch of sometimes impetuous youths, including one that looks like he came straight off a catwalk, or a recording studio, or both
- Ip Man has a rivalry with another Chinese fighter, whom he defeats decisively
- This defeat is publicized, either on purpose or by accident, which stokes the rivalry
- A pause in the action as The Common Enemy is introduced
- The Common Enemy mortally defeats Ip Man’s main rival before Ip Man’s eyes
- There’s a character who works as an intermediary for The Enemy, until he realizes the error of his ways
- Ip Man’s wife begs him not to fight, but to no avail
- Master Ip must avenge his former rival and defend the honor of Chinese martial arts in a well-publicized fight with a formidable opponent who represents a particular fighting style
- Like I really have to tell you what happens next
Nothing wrong with hewing to a formula, except that it seems glaringly obvious here. It doesn’t help that a bunch of the supporting characters from the first film — Siu-Wong Fan, and the always-cool Simon Yam — are reduced to embarrassing cameos in the second film, and only serve to remind the viewer how wasted their talents are in the sequel.
There’s little character development, and no sense of history. (I wondered out loud on Facebook, prior to watching this film, whether any of this was historically accurate, and my brother quipped that it was “maybe about as accurate as 13 Assassins.”) At no point, for instance, is the viewer reminded that these Hong Kong immigrants, displaced either by World War II or by communism, actually came from somewhere else, i.e., the Foshan of the first Ip Man.
But Hong Kong, with its vibrant palette of reds and oranges, looks great here — the rooftops look like something out of 2046 — and it’s indicative of the higher production values for the sequel in general. The action is superb, without relying on quick camera edits, and there’s a riotous big brawl in a fish market that’s easily the highlight of the film.
All in all, though, Ip Man 2 is a pale imitation of the first film. But the main reason to see Ip Man 2, really, is the presence of the legendary Sammo Hung (who also choreographed both films); honestly, I stood up from the sofa and cheered when he first swaggers into the scene. It’s astonishing to me that a man shaped like a barrel could be so fleet of foot, wire-fu notwithstanding. It’s disappointing, nonetheless, to see him and other great talent wasted in this slapdash sequel.