Ip Man 2
Starring: Donnie Yen Ji-dan, Sammo Hung Kam-bo, Huang Xiaoming, Lynn Xiong Dailin
Director: Wilson Yip Wai-shun
Category: IIB (Cantonese and Putonghua)
In one of Ip Man 2's many parting-of-wisdom scenes, the film's protagonist (played by Donnie Yen Ji-dan) tells his trusted chief disciple, the temperamental Wong Leung (Huang Xiaoming), that martial arts is more than just technique. The core, he says, lies with the 'spirit' and 'self-cultivation' that underline the moves. If only the filmmakers heeded this idea too, for Ip Man 2's remarkable visual sheen conceals flawed story-telling, half-baked characterisations and heavy-handed jingoism sitting ill with the peace-and-harmony message the film's hero seeks to articulate.
Taking up where the first Ip Man film leaves off, the story begins in 1950, with Ip Man trying to settle down in Hong Kong years after fleeing his hometown of Foshan during the second world war.
Having left with nothing, Ip lives with his wife Cheung Wing-shing and son Ip Chun (Lynn Xiong and Li Chak, both reprising their roles from the first film) in a small room in Shek Kip Mei, while trying to relaunch his Wing Chun martial-arts school in a disused rooftop storeroom. Initial indifference to his hand-painted promotional posters soon dissipate as he takes in a batch of hot-blooded youths from the neighbourhood, but trouble soon brews when Wong gets into trouble with pupils from a rival clan headed by Hung Chun-nam (Sammo Hung), a pragmatic teacher portrayed - at least initially - as a villain because of his links with corrupted elements in the colonial police force. Tensions simmer further when Hung demands that Ip defeat the established masters in town before he can set up his own school, leading to full-fledged fights in a vast Chinese dining hall.
Until here, Ip Man 2 flourishes: production designer Kenneth Mak has delivered exquisite sets - the characters' homes, the streets, the fishing market where the first altercation takes place, and the many venues where fights happen - and Sammo Hung's action choreography is stunning.
But the smaller details begin to give the game away - why are Wong and his nemesis, Kei (To Yu-hong), dressed in tight T-shirts and denim, for example? While the buildings are atmospheric enough, they evoke more the look of a mainland Chinese city of the time - say, Guangzhou - than Hong Kong.
As the film proceeds, however, larger questions begin to emerge. While Yen remains astute in his turn as the modest, amicable Ip, his understated performance is soon overwhelmed by the film's shift towards scintillating action scenes. All the smaller plotlines - such as Cheung's pregnancy, Ip Chun's prominence, the return of Ip's broken factory-owner friend Chow Ching-chuen (Simon Yam Tat-wah) and his son Kwong-yiu (Kelvin Cheng) - give way to the bombastic denouement which sees Ip Man battling the racist British boxer Taylor Milos (Darren Shahlavi), on whom the colonialists project their supremacist fantasies.
It's also a caricatured character that the filmmakers use as a convenient device to render Ip a patriotic hero, just like he did last time round in his battle against a sadistic Japanese military officer and his cold-blooded fighters. Sadly, such an attempt to stir emotions regresses the film to the 1980s and 90s, when upstanding Chinese characters rose to overcome foreign evils, a feeling consolidated by the casting of Kent Cheng - who played corrupted 1960s policemen in a string of films in the 90s - as a corrupted British officer's sidekick. By playing fast and loose with such easy stereotypes and a flimsy us-against-them finale, screenwriter Edmond Wong Chi-woon (who also wrote the first instalment) undermines the small gems that made the first film sparkle. But of course, there's a third film for him to find his footing again.
Ip Man 2 opens today