The style and techniques involved in making classic action movies in Asia may have been co-opted by the world, but the continent is still fully capable of producing its own modern standard-bearers. Biographical martial arts pic Ip Man came out at the tail end of 2008 in Asia, winning both popular and critical acclaim, and gaining good notices at festival and other limited releases. (It just came out on DVD and Blu-ray in the U.S.)
The sequel, Ip Man 2, came out in Asia at the end of April and has been showcased as the opening night attraction for the New York Asian Film Festival, a featured attraction at FanTasia in Canada (where it won an audience award), and as the centerpiece presentation at the Asian Film Festival of Dallas, which made it possible for me to see it. Like its predecessor, Ip Man 2 stars Donnie Yen as the titular character, a master of the martial art of Wing Chun. Following World War II, Ip Man moves his family to Hong Kong, where he intends to start a martial arts school. He is strongly resisted by the other martial arts masters in town, who question his skills and then demand a monthly stipend for their approval. Emotions remain contentious until a bloodthirsty American boxing champion arrives for a demonstration and kills a respected master in the ring. Differences are set aside as Ip Man fights for the honor of all Chinese people against American imperialism.
For action junkies of all nationalities, the first hour or so of the picture is glorious, highlighted by something I've never seen before.
Directed once again by Wilson Yip, with the action choreographed again by the great Sammo Hung. we get dynamic one-on-one fights, an imaginative rooftop 'one against many,' the classic 'two against many with weapons in a fish market,' and other, similar classic scenarios.
Then we come to 'Master vs. Masters,' as Ip Man must prove himself to the established Hong Kong masters. They sit on chairs on the edge of a large circle, the center of which is a large table top set loosely on top of still more chairs. Between the table and the outer ring of chairs, the space has been filled with upturned chairs. Ip Man must defend himself on the wobbly table top against all masters who wish to challenge him. Defeat means humiliation, and a hard, painful tumble into the upturned chairs.
Ip Man bests first one, then another confident master, until Hung Jan Nam (Sammo Hung) leaps onto the table. Master Hung is the undisputed leader among the masters, the Grandmaster, respected and feared in equal measures. His advanced age is of little consequence; it's his technique, his long-developed skills, and his ferocity that makes him what he is.
Fans, of course, relish the opportunity to see Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung face off, two veteran screen fighters who know how best to showcase martial arts in movies. It's not strictly old school, since wires are clearly used to give a bit of unnatural lift, but the wires are used with discretion, and the heart of the battle comes in a brutal exchange of fists and arms.
There's drama in the film as well, allowing Ip Man to impart life lessons to his students and express the reasons for his moral integrity to his fellow martial arts masters. It all blows up into a hysterically overblown "East vs. West" boxing match involving a nasty Western pugilist and the purity of an Asian master. Even in those fights, however, the filmmakers carve their own initials into the signature sequences.
Ip Man 2 is available now on Region 3 DVD, and is definitely worth seeking out by all legal means possible.