FilmSlashTV: Everybody Wing Chun tonight
“Ip Man 2″ Two stars
To get that sound effect when martial arts masters land a solid blow, grab a 30-pound fish by the tail and swing it full force onto a Naugahyde couch. Kuh-whack!
Oops, sorry about that. You thought martial arts were real?
Well, they are, but movie martial-arts aren’t. That’s pretty much brought home by “Ip Man 2,” the not-long-awaited sequel to “Ip Man,” which was released in 2008. Pronounced “Yip Man,” Ip Man was a legendary Hong Kong master of Wing Chun, a martial-arts school that specialized in fierce, quick, close-in whacking and thwacking. The Wing Chun style was perfect for capturing Chinese asskicking on film, and Ip Man’s disciples included Bruce Lee, who went on to introduce the Wing Chun method to the rest of the world. Yes, that Bruce Lee.
Chinese martial arts films were among the earliest films made in China, as the notion of an unarmed everyman able to best bad guys by dint of sheet physical skill, combined with Confucian theosophy, resonated with poor Chinese audiences. The Nationalists didn’t much like these films — Chiang Kai-Shek being a rather authoritarian fellow, for a dictator — and the genre almost died out. The Chinese Civil War saw filmmakers relocate to Hong Kong, where the British encouraged local production, and in the late 1960s, the Shaw Brothers upped local production values to compete with Japanese samurai films. In the midst of this creative upheaval, Bruce Lee arrived at just the right time, and Chinese martial arts films became an international phenomenon.
Hollywood, of course, discovered Bruce Lee and plucked him out of Hong Kong. It’s funny that “Ip Man 2″ and “The Green Hornet” arrive in theaters almost at the same time.
Anyway, all of this back story is pretty much essential for understanding where “Ip Man 2″ is coming from, philosophically. It’s a second installment of a film bio of Ip Man, and it’s pretty much made-up nonsense, but few will care, as it’s also great fun. In the first installment, Ip Man attempted to learn his discipline whilst under fire from Japanese occupation forces; here, it’s post-war Hong Kong under the command of the British. Martial arts is limited to gangs of street thugs. Ip Man attempts to set up a school to teach Wing Chun, and has a difficult go of it. Not until he brawls with punks from other schools does he begin to earn some respect — and money — but then British thugs challenge the Chinese with a monstrous Western boxer, Twister Milos.
At this point, the film takes a curious turn. The graceful, even balletic, bouts among Chinese fighters — particularly a masterful set piece on overturned tables — give way to thundering, crunching mayhem where no one wins on points, only on demolishing the opponent. It’s pretty brutal. The Chinese look way, way freaked out.
As Ip Man, Donnie Yen reprises his role from the earlier film (as do some of the lesser stars) and portrays the Wing Chun master as thoughtful and quiet, zen-like in his quest for martial perfection. Wing Chun, he points out, should mostly be used for self-preservation instead of beating up on people you don’t like.
Sammo Hung choreographed the fight scenes and also plays another king fu master. He’s pretty amazing.
The film polishes up Ip Man’s image as a Chinese cultural icon. Don’t count on it for accuracy. The real Ip Man, for example, spent most of his earnings on opium, something this studious, reverent “bio” would never dream of revealing.