Picking up roughly a decade after the bleak if preposterous Pacific War milieu of Ip Man, director Wilson Yip’s sequel follows the titular Wing Chun master as he attempts to set up shop anew amid the ever-splintering martial arts traditions of British-occupied Hong Kong. After a brief, desaturated recap of the first film’s timeline, the orange, browns, and greens of Ip Man’s (Donnie Yen) new, student-less (and penniless) studio flood the frame, as if to signal the comparative warmth of the content to follow. And, indeed, the second—and, to date, final—entry in this overseas blockbuster series is more spirited and humorous than its predecessor, successfully lowering the stakes that motivate the propulsive fluidity of the fight scenes from pure survival (against the ruthless Japanese) to vaguely nationalistic honor, which is threatened by the mostly just unattractive English.
Despite this slackening of narrative urgency, however, Yip has duplicated the flawed approach of the earlier movie with striking exactitude: Most of the highlights are in the first, Chinese-centric act, the cartoonishness of the foreign antagonists collapses whatever subtly in character development might have been achieved, and the real-life Ip Man’s robust opium habit is left a matter for a less visceral medium. Still, Yip and Yen prove admirably and unabashedly loyal to Kung Fu conventions, which they’re less interested in paying homage to than in lacquering into a storytelling art—each of the melees, from the opening scene where Ip Man conquers and draws a group of thugs into his disciplehood, are structured as showy, plot-furthering conversations. And while best presented to the American public as better-than-average, ersatz-B-grade Asian-action flicks, both Ip Man films provide a pulpy, bio-fic window into the populist resistance of southern China’s psyche.
This cultural perspective naturally has its limitations. As in the first film, women are nearly invisible; Ip Man’s wife (Lynn Hung) is once again pregnant despite a dearth of on-screen affection between the couple, or of any meaningful interactions between the master and his family. (Her distended belly is a token of her domestic duty, more evidence of Ip Man’s social riches in spite of his postwar financial poverty.) This almost comical emphasis on the patriarch, however, makes the movie’s impressionistic infatuation with the importance of the household even more impressive. The home, with its totems, is resolutely masculinity here, a point most poignantly expressed in a sequence where Ip Man must best a room full of local martial arts experts before achieving acceptance as Hong Kong’s Wing Chun guru. He squares off against each teacher not on a vast, echo-y auditorium stage, but atop an intimate circular table with overturned wooden chairs scattered about it. That Ip Man must remain perched on this table throughout the trial skirmishes deepens the suggestion that these warriors are providers before they are defenders.
The British expats, by contrast, are sniveling racists; while receiving a kickback in a brown paper bag, one guard unsubtly exclaims, “Your money stinks!” at his cowering briber, literally referring to the currency’s malodorousness. Using threatened connections within Hong Kong’s band of martial arts schools, these Brits set up a boxing tournament with a star U.K. champion, Taylor “The Twister” Milos (Darren Shahlavi), hoping to embarrass the virility of the region’s men even further. This Rocky IV-esque device is clunkily executed, as Milos isn’t much more than a raucous pugilist that throws the traditions of Wing Chun et al into sharp relief; his storyline even begins with awkwardness, as some British cops argumentatively scout feasible locations where matches can be held. (The camerawork punctuates the irascible police superintendent’s bellowing with mannered smash zooms.) But much as Ivan Drago’s blonde fury clumsily encapsulated our own confused anxieties towards the Evil Empire, Milos’s obnoxious demeanor is a timely if notably conservative revenge against Hong Kong’s occupiers. (Unlike that of the Japanese from the first film, his evil is a far more benign caricature.)
One can guess the reversals and eventual resolution from this point on, but even as Milos predictably batters through a meager group of challengers, the film draws us in with relentlessly lyrical kinesthetics. The most memorable fight might be the most anticlimactic, staged between the muscular Milos and the corrupt but well-meaning Hung Ga instructor Hung Chun-nam (portrayed by Sammo Hung, the famed martial arts choreographer). Chun-nam’s potbelly and senescent wheeze aren’t an appropriate match for Milos’s padded fists, but they offer actor/trainer Hung, whose own frailty is tragically accelerating, an opportunity to illustrate the fine art of falling. He torks his head to simulate the force of on-coming blows, bowls over with calculated gawkiness, and seems, even, to pause meditatively during a backward, floor-bound spiral sans digital assistance. That the manual magic of this performance comes through the creakiness of Yip’s hyperactive editing is, much more than the passing reference to Ip Man protégé Bruce Lee at the film’s close, a stirring tribute to what might define the philosophy of Chinese martial arts most definitively: humility.