Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 2 has many of the same goals as it 2008 predecessor. Its affection for the myth of its titular character is apparent, as it its desire to stand for the dignity of its characters. This 2010 picture is also fashioned as a tight, artistic martial arts epic and a historical stamp as to the value of Wing Chun.
But with continuation comes a bracing examination of civility and pride, especially as it stands in British-controlled Hong Kong. Screenwriter Edmond Wong’s focus is on international relations, for the most part, with Western attitudes toward Chinese martial arts traditions receiving considerable attention.
Ip Man (Donnie Yen) has moved his family to Hong Kong after the Japanese occupation of Foshan. He wants to open up a martial arts school for Wing Chun, but nobody knows who he is until a brash young Wong Leung (Huang Xiaoming) arrives to test out the new guy. Ip Man earns Leung’s respect and the kid becomes the first student.
But it’s an uphill battle for Ip Man, who runs into the other martial arts masters and their rules. Hung Chun-nam (Sammo Hung) is a Hung Ga master who runs the terrain like a crime family, but there are reasons for his attitude. A few British officers in the Hong Kong police are taking advantage and things come to a head when a boxer (Darren Shahlavi) enters the fray.
Like its predecessor, Ip Man 2 begins with a spirit of lightness. The combat between Leung and Ip Man is about proving oneself, with the latter showcasing his talents in a city that doesn’t know him. All the while, a lady does her laundry on the roof.
There are other entanglements from the past, like the reformed criminal Kam Shan-Chau (Louis Fan). He’s changed his ways since the events of the first picture and becomes one of Ip Man’s friends as events in Hong Kong push people into new alliances.
And there is Chow Ching-chuen (Simon Yam), who has lost his way since the Japanese invasion and roams the streets looking for food. His son (Calvin Cheng) tries to help and winds up working at a newspaper to pay the bills. This turns him into a vital agent of truth, especially with the British looking over his shoulder.
By now, the themes of the Ip Man series are clear. The titular character lives under constant occupation and maintains his sense of decency throughout a series of indignities. The Japanese inflicted violence in the first movie, while the British inflict humiliation and aggression in the second.
This does lead to some over-the-top sequences. The British, especially Shahlavi’s character, are insensitive, tittering idiots. They mock the Chinese, call the martial arts a form of useless dancing. This is not a fallacious assessment of Western rule and there is much justification in it, particularly given how Asian stereotypes have been exploited in Western cinema.
But there’s something almost cartoonish about it, as even the Japanese were awarded more dimension in Ip Man. It may come down to simple disdain for the “foreign devils,” a sensibility that is doubtlessly earned. Cinematically, it plays out with less interest than its philosophical roots would suggest.
Still, Ip Man 2 is a good movie. It deepens the well of the titular character and features some stunning martial arts, including a classic sequence in a fish market and a stellar closing fight that takes Yen’s man to the limit. And all the while, there is dignity and clarity – rarities in the action movie universe.