Film Review: Ip Man 2

Wing Chun master Ip Man fights corruption in Hong Kong while trying to establish a martial-arts school. Rousing, well-mounted sequel proved an enormous hit in Asia.

The story of Ip Man, Wing Chun popularizer and martial-arts hero, continues in Ip Man 2, an exciting, crowd-pleasing biopic that evokes the heyday of Hong Kong kung-fu movies. Built around a steady, assured performance by Donnie Yen as Ip, the film is both entertaining and provocative, especially its unabashed anti-Western xenophobia. While it probably won't break out of the action ghetto in box-office terms, Ip Man 2 can hold its own against a lot of Hollywood product.

The first Ip Man took the time to establish a political and social context to its World War II mainland China settings, building a grim but believable backdrop to rounded, troubled characters. The sequel, set in Hong Kong in the 1950s, focuses almost entirely on action, delivering a steady stream of expertly staged fight scenes that escalate in scope and violence until Ip finds himself defending all of Asian culture to a hostile world.

The plot operates on familiar melodramatic principles: One wrong leads to a greater one until fighting is inevitable. Ip must face down street punks, then more organized mobs, corrupt cops, and finally British oppressors, in each instance resisting revenge while demanding respect. Despite his efforts to avoid confrontation, to live purely by his principles, Ip is drawn unwillingly into a complicated, at times contradictory world. Befriending one hotheaded youth might result in facing down dozens of machete-wielding attackers, as Ip does in a breathtaking battle in an open-air fish market.

Graceful, athletic and extraordinarily quick, Donnie Yen is a consistent delight as the kung-fu master. For much of the story he is pitted against Sammo Hung, one of the legends of Hong Kong martial arts and the film's talented action director. One tour de force scene has them fighting atop a wobbly restaurant table, watched and critiqued by a who's-who of kung-fu masters.

What makes Ip such as appealing character is his insistence on honor and dignity. He won't fight for gain, but refuses to back down before injustice. Like his style of martial arts, Ip relies on defense, finding ways to use his opponents' strengths against them. Most of his battles end with his hand just pulling back from the coup de grace, a sign of respect as well as dominance. Bruce Lee would develop a similar character in his films.

Lee was Ip's most famous pupil, one reason why crowds across Asia have flocked to the Ip Man films. Another reason is their portrayal of Chinese culture, in terms politically incorrect enough to shock American viewers. The final third of Ip Man 2 details a blood match between Ip and a British boxer known as the "Twister" (Darren Shahlavi). For Asian viewers, the Twister's first fight is roughly equivalent to a group of anguished Texans watching Osama bin Laden beat Davy Crockett to death.

Rushes from the first Ip Man biopic proved so exciting that this sequel was announced during production. Both films were successful enough to spawn competing Ip Man films, including another starring Sammo Hung. (Wong Kar Wai has announced his own Ip Man project.) They will have a tough time living up to Ip Man 2.