2008’s Ip Man was one of the great modern martial-arts films. Its titular hero was based on a real-life grandmaster of Wing Chun whose main claim to fame in America is that he trained Bruce Lee. The movie followed the humble but virtuosic Ip as he taught students, defended his friend’s cotton mill against thugs, and struggled to survive during the Japanese occupation of China in 1937. That last element gave the original Ip Man some gravitas, and even though much of the story was pure fantasy (Ip never fought a duel with a Japanese general, as the film had it), it was never less than engaging and entertaining.
The new sequel, Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster, goes even further into Chinese nationalist mythmaking. Here, Ip is pitted against a loutish, brutal British boxer, who represents the British colonial rule that Hong Kong was under at the time (and which lasted till 1997, actually). This boxer has already killed another local master in the ring, and it becomes important for Ip to defeat him to restore the nation’s pride. I seriously doubt the real Ip fought an English boxer calling himself “the Twister” any more than he fought a Japanese general, but let’s go along with the conceit for the sake of fable, even if it turns the movie’s last act into Rocky IV.
The sequel unavoidably lacks the resonance of the original’s war-torn milieu, but three men return from the first film and keep it entertaining: director Wilson Yip, fight choreographer Sammo Hung (who also appears here as an Ip rival turned friend), and star Donnie Yen as Ip. Yen, slim and severe, walks calmly in a black ankle-length coat, looking like a country priest on holiday. Yet he also has an easy smile and an infinite amount of patience with his students. In this second film, Ip’s wartime experiences seem to have drawn him closer to his wife and son (there’s another baby on the way), and even though you can follow Ip Man 2 without having seen the first, you’d miss touches like Ip’s bittersweet, reflective smile when asked if he can fight ten men (viewers of Ip Man know he did, in a Japanese prison). Yen successfully creates a demigod we can nonetheless care about and relate to — even if everyone respects Ip’s fighting skills, he still has to pay the rent.
So the first half of Ip Man 2 focuses on Ip trying to establish a training school in Hong Kong by proving himself against the local masters (including Sammo Hung), while the second half throws him in the ring with the British empire. As the boxer, Darren Shahlavi gives a pretty awful performance, but he’s cruel and imposing enough as an avatar of British imperialist force (Morrissey should love him). I wanted a bit more of Fan Siu-wong, who has the bullish features and swagger of the young Toshiro Mifune, as the thug who made Ip’s life annoying in the first film but returns here amusingly gentled by marriage and fatherhood. But when Donnie Yen is up there defying gravity and seemingly breaking the sound barrier with his fists, a lot is forgiven. Ip Man 2 is a worthy sequel; I just hope they don’t go for a third outing — who’s left for Ip to fight and uphold Chinese exceptionalism, a Tibetan?