Wing Chun Double Feature: Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2 (2010)

It’s good to know that other countries will skewer biographical depictions of historical figures as much as America does. Known by many today as the teacher of kung-fu legend Bruce Lee, Ip (or Yip) Man was a master of the Wing Chun style. Ip Man and Ip Man 2 tell the apparently highly fabricated story of his rise to fame as a sort of Chinese folk hero fighting against the Japanese and British presences in Hong Kong in the 1930’s and 50’s. Despite attempts to remain a pacifist, he must often resort to kicking everyone’s ass in order to promote peace. You know how it is.

Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is a kind and successful businessman who practices martial arts in his spare time, residing in a town where almost every able-bodied man seems to constantly promote in some kind of fighting style. The townspeople often hound him to open his own school, but his frequent dabbling in Wing Chun frustrates his wife and son, and he believes himself primarily a businessman. When the Japanese invade China and subjugate the entire nation, he is forced to fight for a haughty Japanese general’s entertainment, and eventually becomes a representative for his entire nation.

A decade later, no one in his family has aged (seriously, his son is still like 7 years old and his wife is just as hot), and everyone is struggling to make due as the British act like dicks to everyone. There is mad corruption in the police force and the chubby kung-fu mafia don Master Hong Zhen Nan (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo) basically runs the town, but in turn he must answer to his money-hungry British superiors. Ip Man tries to set up a Wing Chun school so he can support his family, but the martial arts schools are all controlled by Master Hong. Eventually he is pitted against a professional jackass/boxer from the UK, Twister (Darren Shahlavi), in a deadly match to resurrect Chinese pride at a time of Western dominance.

Packed with exciting fight scenes, interesting characters, and unexpected gravitas, both films are gripping looks at a period in Hong Kong history that I know little about. I loved the sepia-tinged visuals, laced with intricate sets and costumes that mix Chinese and European influences. Donnie Yen is excellent as the title character, with a serious but friendly demeanor that segues into confident battle scenes with ease. The first film has higher stakes, so the story is more affecting, but both scripts feature enough drama to make the action even more thrilling.

Ip Man’s story is populated with a strong sense of nationalism that defaults to racism against non-Chinese characters. Most of the Japanese soldiers are sadistic and heartless, with at least one resembling an American anti-Japan cartoon. The British depicted in the second film are just the worst people in the world, completely egotistical and cruel. But really, this isn’t at all surprising, considering the treatment these two groups gave Hong Kong. It’s like depictions of Nazis in WWII films.

As much as I love mindless action flicks in general, it’s nice to have incredibly badass and strongly-choreographed fight scenes set against a dramatic story and historical background. Sure, it’s not exactly accurate regarding the real Ip Man’s life, but it makes for an entertaining and moving double feature!

Ip Man: 4.5/5
Ip Man 2: 4/5

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