Announced before the first Ip Man was in general release, this smart, equally-enthralling sequel to the hit 2008 film looks to do even better U.S. business than its predecessor, in large part because distributor Well Go, who released the previous film as an afterthought to surprisingly successful DVD and Blu-ray sales, is giving this installment a proper upfront theatrical run.
Director Wilson Yip, screenwriter Edmond Wong and star Donnie Yen all return to continue the saga of the pioneering master of the Wing Chun style of Kung Fu, generally best known as the man who first instructed a young Bruce Lee. The producers' original plan was to create a two-part saga beginning with Ip Man's exploits and travails before and during World War II; the sequel would include his mentorship of Bruce Lee in the 1950s. Protracted negotiations with the Lee estate, however, forced the filmmakers to move ahead with an interim story, largely fictionalized, in which Ip Man must face off against the abuses of British colonialism in much the same fashion he previously confronted Japanese imperialism. Such formulaic conveniences aside, Ip Man 2 is still a superbly well-crafted film, faithful to its cultural and cinematic heritage, and easily one of the most enjoyable entertainments of a still nascent 2011 post-holiday season.
The year is 1950 and Ip Man has moved his family to Hong Kong where, like many Chinese ex-pats, he hopes to find opportunities not afforded by the depressed mainland economy. World War II is a distant memory, but its residual scars still linger. His wife now expecting their second child, the mild-mannered martial arts master once again opens a Kung Fu school in hopes of evangelizing the oft-maligned Wing Chun style. Ever the reluctant hero, Ip Man finds it hard to attract students until he is forced to dispatch several would-be challengers who, in turn, become faithful disciples. But postwar Hong Kong is a treacherous place, with local Kung Fu schools acting almost like street gangs, territorially carving up neighborhoods under the oversight of the Godfather-like Master Hung Chun-nam (Sammo Hung, also the film's action director) who claims to keep the peace through a kind of protection racket. When Ip Man refuses to play or pay, he is dragged into a tournament style challenge simply to retain his right to teach. But even that modest triumph is met by a greater one when a western-style boxing exhibition, featuring the British champion Taylor "The Twister" Milos (Darren Shahlavi) takes a nasty turn, putting Ip Man on a collision course with "Twister" to once again salvage Chinese honor.
Though less overtly melodramatic than its predecessor, Ip Man 2 is, in many respects, the more satisfying film thanks largely to absolutely exceptional work by Sammo Hung on both sides of the camera. A legendary star and filmmaker in his own right, Hung's action direction is virtually flawless, harking back to the golden days of the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1990s when the likes of Hung and his childhood "brother" Jackie Chan helped revitalize the lagging industry with eye-popping fight choreography and action photography. Several set pieces here are bona-fide classics, with the table-fighting sequence a major standout. It's Hung's performance as Master Hung Chun-nam, however, that proves the film's secret weapon—an energetic, morally complex counterpoint to Yen's soft-spoken do-gooder.
If there's a deficit anywhere in the film, it's the cartoonishness of the English-language actors, a consistent problem in Hong Kong martial arts films as far back as the '80s. What's clearly never been an obstacle for Asian audiences, however, has often proved a considerable challenge for U.S. distributors. Hopefully, in the case of Ip Man 2, audiences will respond favorably enough to the film's myriad other merits that poor English-language acting won't make much of a difference; especially for those eagerly anticipating Ip Man 3.
Distributor: Well Go USA
Cast: Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Fan Sui-Wong, Xiong Dia-Lin, Darren Shahlavi
Director: Wilson Yip
Screenwriter: Edmong Wong
Producers: Bak-Ming Wong
Genre: Period Action Drama
Rating: R for violence.
Running time: 108 min
Release date: January 28, 2011