Ip Man and Ip Man 2

Rush upon loss of contact

For those not in the know, Wing Chun is the deadliest Chinese killing art, said to be created by Ng Mui, one of the Five Elders (the only survivors of the Shaolin Temple’s destruction by the Qing Dynasty).  Popularized by grandmaster Yip Man (Ip Man), the first to teach it openly, Wing Chun is currently the most globally widespread form of Southern Kung Fu.  One of the most famous recent practitioners was Bruce Lee, and although he didn’t learn the entire system, he credited Wing Chun for many of his greatest accomplishments.

Ip Man is a biopic loosely based on the life of the title character, and while taking several liberties with historical accuracy, it’s an excellent film that captures the spirit of Wing Chun and gives spinal shivers to anyone passionate about martial arts, camaraderie, and family.  The atmosphere goes from peaceful to gritty as the Japanese begin to occupy China, and the family mentality of the Foshan Chinese is a heartfelt, tear-inducing spectacle – call it “nationalism” if you must, but it’s more than that, something much more raw.

The story of the film concerns Ip Man’s rise to popularity as the folks of Foshan beg him to teach them Wing Chun.  He politely refuses, choosing to focus instead on his wife, Wing-sing (Lynn Hung) and his toddler son Ip Chun (Li Chak), and only displays his abilities in friendly, private exhibitions with friends.  When a Mongolian practitioner of Northern Fist, played by the famous Fan Siu-wong, enters Foshan with a group of bandits and roundly defeats the masters (Sifu) of Tai Chi Chuan, White Crane and several others, Ip is forced to step in and defeat him to uphold the dignity of Foshan.  Following this bout, during which Police Inspector Li (Lam Ka-tung) and most of the town’s people listen in, Ip’s fame becomes unprecedented.  Japanese occupation begins shortly after, and Ip is forced to get a job as a coolie at a coal mine while the local Japanese general, Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) and his sidekick Colonel Sato (Shibuya Tenma) use Ip’s own mansion as a place to hold martial arts exhibitions.  When two of his friends are needlessly killed during these fights, Ip decides to take a stand.

One of my favorite things about this film is the privilege of seeing many unique styles of Foshan kung fu that are now all but extinct: Northern Fist, Kwon Dao, White Crane, and so on.  The music is gripping, and the direction of Wilson Yip makes every scene (even the occasional flat dialogue) vibrate with passion.  Donnie Yen’s performance as the legendary grandmaster is absolute, and I believed him from the start.  Yen, a popular Chinese actor who has studied many forms of martial arts in his time, was instructed by the real-life Ip Chun (the son of Ip Man) in Wing Chun, and has solidified his place as not only a dedicated actor but a true martial artist in order to play this role.

Areas of improvement have been cited by Ip Chun, including the appearance of the mansion (apparently quite different from real life) and the fact that while the film takes place in Foshan, it was not shot on location.  I’d argue, however, that Yip’s re-imagining of Foshan is inspired and effective, and every time I see this film I feel like I’m walking through those streets in the time that it was a quaint martial-arts prefecture and not its current state (which isn’t much different in appearance from Los Angeles when you look at it from above).

One of the most impressive scenes is the one in which Ip Man bests ten karate black belts at once.  Less-educated critics have criticized the scene, saying it took them out of reality, but having a brother who practices Wing Chun and having visited a Kwon myself, I argue the other side.  Battling several people at once is an enormous part of what Wing Chun is for, and practitioners/students do learn those rapid punches you see Donnie Yen obliterating several hopefully-well-paid actors and stuntmen with.

The second film, definitively titled Ip Man 2, focuses on British colonization in China, during which time Ip Man had begun taking on students.  Originally intended to focus on the relationship between Sifu Ip and Bruce Lee, fate intervened and an agreement could not be reached with Lee’s descendants.  This film can be divided into two halves as far as the narrative focus is concerned: 1) Ip Man begins taking on students and forms a rivalry with a nearby Hung Ga school; 2) the British make their presence known and Ip must once again make a stand for his culture.  The first half is stronger as we are once again treated to different forms of martial arts rarely used in the present world, including Hung Ga, Mantis, and others, and the direction really focuses on what Wing Chun is: a family.  The later third of the film is more or less a carbon copy of Rocky IV, with our hero dueling a seemingly-invincible foreign guy and then giving a speech about how he wishes our respective cultures could be at peace with one another.

This film treats us to many great new characters in addition to the ones returning from the first film.  The new characters include Sifu Hung, played by renowned choreographer and international action star Sammo Hung (who also choreographed both films in this series); Twister (Darren Shahlavi), the inexplicably sociopathic British boxing champion who considers Chinese boxing to be rubbish; and Fatso (Kent Cheng), a police officer and good friend of Hung.  The film also features Huang Xiaoming in a terrific performance as Wong Shun Leung, one of Ip Man’s first real-life students and eventual trainer of Bruce Lee.  Xiaoming plays the role with near-unrivaled coolness and has a strut comparable to Lee himself in Enter the Dragon.  Siu-wong’s character even returns, this time as an ally of Ip Man.

Ip Man 2 is, overall, very well-done.  While the first film was about survival, this one is about living.  Lives have gone on, some for the better and some not so much, and Yip’s decision to include some very human moments in addition to the fights (which are more frequent in this second installment) is refreshing and keeps the film from wandering too far from what it’s really about.  For example, Simon Yam’s character returns after being shot in the head and forgetting everyone he knows.  Ip’s devastation at not being remembered by his friend is incredibly touching, even (and perhaps especially) in scenes where no dialogue is even spoken.  Despite the cartoonishly awful and over-the-top performances of the British characters, western attitudes towards the Chinese are captured very well, almost to the point that we westerners wonder whether we’ve ever looked that stupid when talking about another culture.

I’ve heard complaints about the final fight scene from actual Wing Chun practitioners, which I agree with: if Ip was able to strike, Twister would not have been absorbing half of those blows.  However, by the same token, this is a film, and the bad guy needed to be more imposing and put up more of a fight than General Miura did.  That said, the fight is well-choreographed, although it’s damn near impossible for me to find a boxer engaging to watch (a whole lot of random swinging and unnecessary noise if you ask me).  Hasn’t been done since Rocky 3.  Luckily, Donnie Yen’s moves, coupled with the fact that we know he’s eventually going to break this redwood of a man down, save the fight from being a bore.

These films are an excellent, chest-wrenching journey through time, the evolution of martial arts, and the importance of family in all cultures.  Check them out as soon as you can.

Ip Man and Ip Man 2 will be available on official DVDs in the U.S. next month (July).

Ip Man (2008); written by Edmond Wong; directed by Wilson Yip; starring Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi.

Ip Man 2 (2010); written by Edmond Wong; directed by Wilson Yip; starring Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, and Huang Xiaoming.