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Ip Man 2 (2010)

As you will understand from the title, Ip Man 2 is a sequel following the loosely biographical story as Ip Man, also known as Yip Kai-Man, escapes from the mainland to Hong Kong. Those of you who know the history of this period will understand that some adjustments had to be made to the underlying story. The first Ip Man shows the eponymous hero in Foshan during the Second Sino-Japanese War which ended in 1945. This is untrue. He did not return to Foshan until after the Japanese had been expelled. Worse from the point of view of the Chinese authorities, he was a police officer and a loyal member of the Kuomintang. Once the Communists came to power, Ip Man retreated back to Hong Kong where he had spent some time as a teenager. All these political problems were glossed over in self-censorship by having Ip Man become a Chinese hero for beating the Japanese army’s martial arts expert. It’s then expedient for him to be carried, wounded, to Hong Kong at the beginning of this film.

Donnie Yen and Lynn Hung live humble lives in Hong Kong


As with the first film, this continues with the slightly deadpan Donnie Yen in the title role. The character of the man is shown as humble but with stubborn integrity, i.e. he would prefer never to have to fight to prove anything but, if push literally comes to shove, he will defend himself and the reputation of his fighting style. Much of the first part of the film is taken up with the politics of running a martial arts school in Hong Kong. Ip Man refuses to pay for membership of the local association which is apparently run by Master Hong Zhun-nam (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo) and Fatso (Kent Cheng). In fact, the whole system is front for a protection racket run by a corrupt senior officer in the police force. As a result of his refusal to pay, Ip Man’s “unauthorised” school is attacked and closed.

Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung spar


The narrative structure of this film is an almost exact copy of the first. We establish the character of the Ip Man. He faces a challenge that disrupts his quiet lifestyle. In the first, the Japanese arrive and desperate local thugs start a protection racket. In the final act, there’s a climatic fight with a reasonably villainous opponent. At this point, it’s interesting to compare both parts of the Ip Man story with Fearless (2006) in which Jet Li fights an honourable Japanese champion (Shidô Nakamura). I mention this film because Jet Li disposes of the giant Hercules O’Brian with little difficulty, i.e. the assumption of the film is that Chinese and, by implication, Japanese martial arts are inherently superior to Western boxing and wrestling skills. In Ip Man 2, there’s a big build-up to the fight with Twister (Darren Shahlavi). The obvious intention of the film is to demonise the colonial British. The police force is shown to be largely corrupt and expat entrepreneurs are milking the Chinese for their own profit. The character Twister is wonderfully melodramatic with bulging muscles, a giant ego and little in the brain department. Without exception, all the British in the local fight scene are portrayed as deeply racist, convinced of their innate superiority over the little yellow men. When Twister disrupts a demonstration of the different local styles of fighting, this provokes Master Hong into fighting. He knows he should not. As an asthmatic and older man, he can only fight at something approaching his best for a relatively short period of time. But he feels the honour of the Chinese way of fighting is at stake. He’s therefore prepared to sacrifice himself to prove the point (one way or the other).


In the first exchanges he’s equal to the British champion. But, as he tires, Twister starts to hit him at will. Rather than fall down and save himself, he holds the rope and is beaten to death. This brutal display is embarrassing to the British hierarchy who begin a cover-up, but Twister opens his mouth and issues another challenge. This time, Ip Man accepts. The fight is fairly remarkable because, unlike the earlier “exchange of pointers” between Ip Man and Master Hung which is dominated by fanciful wire work, this is a fight in which both combatants “obviously” hit (and kick) each other. In a relatively short space of time, Ip Man has been felled to the canvas and his face starts to swell with bruising. There’s no sanction when Twister hits Ip Man after the bell has gone and the judges instruct Ip Man that kicking is not allowed, i.e. the fight is being fixed. In a flurry of blows and changes in fighting style, most of which would be illegal under Western boxing rules, Twister is then beaten into insensibility. The fight event ends with an embarrassing “why can’t we just respect each other and get along” speech by the battered Ip Man. The British take a moment to think about how awfully bad they have been and then applaud the sentiment. Frankly, this doesn’t quite fit the plot. When the good guy batters the demon, some degree of triumphalism is expected. All that happens is that Ip Man jogs off to see his new-born baby. His wife played by Lynn Hung has been working on the baby behind the scenes while our hero trains for the fight. The happy couple then disappears back into semi-obscurity. With respect to the director, Wilson Yip, this is not quite the political and emotional pay-off we deserve. Although I concede it’s a nice touch to see him send the young Bruce Lee away at the end.

Donnie Yen and Darren Shahlavi in the grandstand finish


Unlike the first Ip Man which was more a solo vehicle, this gives fairly equal prominence to Sammo Hung who turns in a characteristically fine performance in acting, fighting and doing the fight choreography. Because Donnie Yen plays Ip Man as a rather gentle man (even prepared to run away if it becomes necessary), it’s somewhat low key to put against Sammo Hung except in their over-the-top fight when they both go at each other with something like full speed. Even though he’s getting old and experienced heart problems while filming, Sammo Hung is a delight to watch in full flow. Wilson Yip turns in a solid performance as director but I’m not sure he could decide what he wanted as the focus of the film. The first Ip Man is very much about the man who reluctantly agrees to teach his fighting style when the country starts to fall apart. The final fight to complete the demonisation of the Japanese is perfectly judged as the victorious Ip Man is shot in the back. That’s a real emotional pay-off. It should be said that the actual Japanese opponent was not wholly dishonourable, but he’s surrounded by people who are.


The sequel seems to be about demonising the colonial British, but it metaphorically pulls its punch at the end. It’s also less about the Wing Chun fighting style because the wire work takes a significant part what we see too far away from reality. A far more interesting approach would have been to show Ip Man and Master Hong learning from each other and developing the more sophisticated version of Wing Chun that would be passed on to Bruce Lee. The only redeeming feature is that, in the final fight, Ip Man is shown losing his aura of invincibility. He’s knocked down by a good fighter with very fast hands. Perhaps we should just see Ip Man as a modest hero doing nothing more than is necessary to prove his point and then waking away. Overall, Ip Man 2 is enjoyable but not as good as the first. I’m not surprised Donnie Yen refused to play the part again.


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