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Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grand Master

TedFlicks Rating: ★★★½☆

$8.50 ticket on a scale of $0 to $13.50


Like many feature films from China that make their way to the US, “Ip Man 2:  Legend of the Grand Master,” is a tad allegorical.  This may be unavoidable as the Chinese, whose nation is re-emerging as a world power after centuries of decline, have a bent, it seems, for infusing their art with morality tales.

With “Ip Man 2,” the morality tale is not entirely out of place.  Shown stateside in Cantonese and English with English subtitles, “Ip Man 2” works both as a brilliantly choreographed (thanks to Sammo Hung) martial arts film and as a sort of “Mr. Smith goes to Washington,” Chinese style.

Pic is set in Hong Kong in 1949.  Ip Man (Donnie Yen), the master of Wing Chun, has escaped (say pic’s press materials) from the Japanese invasion of China to Hong Kong, then a British Crown Colony.  Political correctness aside, it should be noted that the Japs also occupied Hong Kong during the Second World War and that anyone’s reason for leaving mainland China in 1949 had to do with the civil war between the Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, and the Communists led by Mao Tse-Tong, not with the Japs who had been atomic bombed into submission in the late summer of 1945.  Those who remember history will recall that the Communist side won the civil war in 1949, banishing the Kuomintang to the island of Taiwan.  There was a massive influx of refugees to the British and Portuguese coastal colonies of Hong Kong and Macao, respectively.

Historical details aside, “Ip Man 2” is a great underdog film.  Ip Man, who has a wife (Lynn Chun), who is pregnant with his second child, and a son (Li Chak) is trying to set up a martial arts school in Hong Kong — with a little help from friendly newspaper publisher and some static from the Hong Kong Martial Arts Association run by Hung Chum-nam (Sammo Hung) who is paying off a crooked British cop (Inspector Wallace played by Charles Mayer in one of the more unfortunately allegorical roles).  At first, things look bleak for Ip Man.  He has no pupils, no income, and lots of bills to pay.  Told that he has to beat the local martial arts masters in a fair fight in order to be certified, he does — except that his bout with Master Hung ends in a draw.  Ip Man refuses to pay Master Hung the 100$KH monthly fee for being part of the “association.”  This is supposed to be a matter of principle, but it is a bit of a moot point because Master Ip does not have the money to pay Master Hung.

Master Ip manages either through skill or charm, to begin winning over people to his cause.  Prospective students, mostly street toughs, challenge him and then bow to him when he defeats them.  Hong Kong’s other martial arts masters begin to respect him.  Things are looking up until the crooked cop brings a British boxing champ (Taylor “The Twister” Milos played by Darren Shahlavi in a totally over-the-top portrayal of evil) to perform exhibition matches in Hong Kong.  Master Hung is the organizer.  An ethnically Chinese HK policeman (Fatso, ably played by Kent Cheng), is the liaison between Wallace and Master Hung.

Wallace is on the take — to make things perfectly clear.  That sort of thing was never popular in the British colonial civil service.  Eventually he gets his comeuppance thanks to Fatso turning on him at a pivotal moment, arrested by his superior backed by a force of Gurkhas, the redoubtable Nepalese who served for more than a century as a backbone of the British Empire.

The pivotal moment has a lot going for it.  “Ip Man 2” depends in large part on emotion.  Good guys take it on the chin.  One is forced to wonder how long they can hang on — if at all.  Master Hung is killed in an exhibition boxing match with Twister.  There is public relations and social pressure for closure.  Hong Kong is about to erupt.  Something has to give.  At the insistence of the colonial authorities, a second, open match with Twister is announced.  Twister will take on any Chinese martial arts master — and after attending Master Hung’s funeral, Ip Man steps up to the plate.  It’s the Thriller In Manila (Ali vs. Frasier, 1975) for the people of Hong Kong.  Even the British expats largely line up on the side of Ip Man.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Pic’s ending is beyond cute.  In the final reel, a pupil brings Master Ip a young boy who wants to learn martial arts to beat up bullies.  Master Ip shakes his head.  Played by Donnie Yen, Master Ip is a gentle, polite soul.  He asks the boy’s name.  “Bruce Lee” is the reply.  The rest of the story is told by title cards and stills.  Bruce Lee became a student of Ip Man in 1956.  Ip Man gets credit for introducing Wing Chun to the world.

Reality Check:  The real Ip Man was indeed a martial arts master who introduced Wing Chun to the Western World.  He was also an opium addict and a poor little rich kid who served for a while as a policeman in his Chinese home town of Foshan.  There he taught cops working for him Wing Chun.  He died of throat cancer in 1972 (pic portrays him as a heavy smoker), but despite his flaws, his achievements cannot be overlooked.

Pic benefits from (in addition to Sammo Hung’s brilliant choreography) fabulous lensing (by Poon Hang-Sang) and top notch editing by Cheung Ka-Fai.  Wilson Yip’s direction is economical if a tad obvious. Since most of the dialogue is in Cantonese, your critic cannot judge the sound recording, but all the English-language dialogue was caught spot-on.

“Ip Man 2” is rated R for violence.  It need not be.  It offers many lessons that young boys would do well to learn.


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IP Man 2 on Netflix
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