Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ip Man 2 (葉問2 : 宗師傳奇 / Yip Man 2: Chung Si Chuen Kei)

Grandmaster Showdown

You would know from my review of the first Ip Man film that I had enjoyed it tremendously, being that breath of fresh air for the martial arts genre in the creation of a hotly contested biopic starring possibly one of the hottest Hong Kong action stars right now in Donnie Yen, who had balanced dramatic flair for hard-hitting action in sequences that is now icons for the film, and whose popularity made it the subject in a number of spoofs in various Hong Kong comedies. The sequel is highly anticipated, though if I were to sum it up, it'll be same same, but different. It didn't surpass the original, yet didn't fare too bad by itself too.

Continuing the narrative straight from where we last left off with Yen's Ip Man and family escaping from the Japanese to the British colony of Hong Kong, he's about to find that his luxurious lifestyle is a thing of the past, and that the attitudes of the Chinese people now is clearly different, where friendly sparring sessions are nothing but a time-honored, forgotten tradition. Eking out a livelihood takes first priority, and he soon discovers that opening a Wing Chun martial arts school is as simple as requesting for permission to play in another's sandbox, only that the rest of the players have their own established rules and don't take it too well with newcomers, especially when they have impetuous students like Wong Leung (Huang Xiaoming, playing a character based on Ip Man's disciple who would be responsible in tutoring Bruce Lee) who resort to the use of fists to settle issues.

Edmond Wong's screenplay, like the first film, focused more on drama and had moments where questions such as integrity and the living of one's life according to ideals get raised, whether it is, for the sake of the greater good, worthwhile to forgo those ideals in order to make a living, and allow those who work for you, to make something out for themselves too. In essence, which of the lesser evils are you willing to compromise on. There's also time taken to devote to the corruption of Caucasian police officers, as well as how the Chinese used to fight their own, before learning to unite in the face of stronger, external opponents out to humiliate and insult long held values because of ignorance and prejudice.

The second half of the film, with what we've seen in the trailers involving yet another East versus West matchup that have been covered in contemporary martial arts films and biopics like Fearless and True Legend, was quite the worry for me, in that it would be another opportunity for meaningless bashing and the championing of nationalistic messages. It's that sense of deja-vu that you fear arising from a similar situation from its predecessor, but thankfully, we get a fight that's quite compelling to watch, with Ip Man now being properly challenged by an opponent who's skilled with plenty of power and dexterity, with that lack of honour in dishing out a fair fight. Darren Shahlavi who portrays Twister the boxer, gets top marks for making you all riled up with his constant air of superiority.

Action choreography continues to be designed by Sammo Hung, and personally three action sequences stand out. I didn't enjoy the fish market brawl, as I didn't take to Ip Man fighting with an unruly horde, except that there's a moment of truth there when he shows by example his philosophy of "running away" (not that he's a coward) which continues from where he left off from an answer to Wong Leung. Two scenes which stood out involves Shahlavi's battle with the Chinese grandmasters, and frankly, despite being a "boxing" match, it was really imaginative of Sammo to deliver something that's quite different from the usual action sequences in Chinese films involving battling a Caucasian in a ring.

But the number one action sequence, albeit a little bit short, would be that which you've been teased by the trailer, with Ip Man versus Sammo's Hung Jan Nam mano a mano atop a flimsy table, in what would be Wing Chung versus Hung Ga Kuen. Naturally, not to offend real life practitioners means the result of the fight would be understood, but to see Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung match up against one another, is an action film fan's dream come true again, from SPL, especially after Ip Man dispenses with the side show phonies. If I had a gripe, these two really went all out with the speed of execution, that you just want to beg the camera to stay put from afar in slow motion to allow us all to gaze.

And because of the enigmatic presence of Sammo, somehow I feel that Ip Man the character got diluted screen time because ample time has to be set aside to prevent Sammo's Master Hung from being just the supporting character, but one that's properly fleshed out. He's there to be the contrast as the older martial arts practitioner who's well respected by his peers, and providing that glimpse of how Ip Man could progress, and whether to want to compromise ideals for those dependent on him for livelihood. Sammo being Sammo also chews up the screen with his charisma, and you can hear gasps of reverence reverberate around the cinema hall when he first appears on screen, his persona just screaming that he's one bad mo-fo not to be messed around with.

So Ip Man's thunder did get stolen a little, and the air of invincibility of Ip Man also got shattered in this film, as Wing Chun gets practiced and delivered by others, and we see him drawing or even beaten, which is something rare and unseen thus far. Of course this makes his character even more believable that he's no Superman, and that it provides an opportunity for us to cheer him on in continuing to combat and stand for his ideals. Yen continues to deliver Ip Man in a relatively low key style, preferring smiles and the occasional smoke to wanting to show off that he's one of the best martial artists out there.

Simon Yam, Calvin Cheng, Fan Siu-Wong and even Lynn Hung who plays Ip Man's Wife from the first film were all sadly underutilized, and the introduction of Kent Cheng was something like a direct replacement of Lam Ka-Tung's character from Ip Man (which means the deleted scene in the earlier film could be considered canon if you wish), being the default translator between the Chinese and the British, and more often than not is seen siding with the Westerners in order to keep his cop job. Huang Xiaoming brings a youthful energy as Wong Leung, and I suppose his inclusion is to capture the Mainland market where he's got a huge following.

One wonders whether the box office receipts will warrant a third film, and it does seem quite complete with clear historical enemies like the Japanese and the British soundly defeated. I'm not sure if the third film will deal with Ip Man's relationship and tutelage of his well known pupil (the the epilogue once again reminds us), since Yen will need to be visibly aged. And with a slew of copycat films / television serials expected to come out in the wake of this release either about the Grandmaster or Wing Chun in general, l guess it's probably wait and see. Same same, but different, is my verdict of Ip Man 2, being just as enjoyable but lacking a certain inexplicable X-factor that could have made the second outing surpass the first.

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