July 9th, 2010
I know Rocky IV. Rocky IV is a guilty pleasure of mine. And Ip Man 2 is no Rocky IV. Oh, it certainly tries to be. As Kozo said in his review, the second half of Wilson Yip’s 2010 film “is basically a blow-by-blow retread” of the fourth installment of the Balboa legend. Remember when Apollo Creed told Rocky not to throw in the towel? Remember when Apollo went ahead and got killed by the Russian, Ivan Drago? And remember when Rocky beat Drago, won the Russian crowd over, and gave a speech about cross-cultural understanding, which the announcer translated for a no longer hostile audience? Yeah, well, so did Wilson Yip. Except he didn’t do it half as well as Sly.
“Gee, is it just me or does this scene seem awfully familiar?”
On a personal note, the funniest thing to me about Ip Man 2’s resemblance to Rocky IV is that earlier this year, I panned Flashpoint as one of the worst Hong Kong films of the 2000s, and admonished Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip for the one-sided climax, saying that they “should have watched ANY Indiana Jones or Rocky movie (even Rocky V, for crying out loud!) and tried to learn a thing or two about the inherent joy of watching an underdog hero prevail over a more skilled opponent.” Well, I doubt they read my blog, but it sure seems like they took my advice when constructing the plot for Ip Man 2. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite pull it off. But to be fair, I guess it’s not exactly an easy proposition. I mean, Rocky IV had THREE montages. Ip Man 2 has, what, maybe one? And Ip Man’s training montage doesn’t have John Tepper’s “Hearts on Fire” pumping through the speakers. Filmmakers of the world pay attention: THIS is how you montage.
Ip Man 2 is, of course, the sequel to the very successful bio-pic entitled — you guessed it — Ip Man. I saw it on DVD awhile back, and to tell the truth, even though the film went on to win Best Picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards, I thought it was “just okay.” In fact, I’ve pretty much blanked out everything about the movie, except for one moment in the film I made a point of screen capping:
That’s gotta hurt.
But my inability to remember anything substantial about Ip Man didn’t turn out to be a problem when it came to watching the sequel. One of the things I like about Ip Man 2 is that you don’t have to have seen the first film to understand what’s happening. The filmmakers give you a few glimpses at events that occurred in the original, but for the uninitiated, Ip Man 2 plays out less as a sequel than as a brand new story of an impoverished martial arts teacher who runs afoul of the local kung fu masters for teaching without their say-so. Until the evil Westerners show up, that’s pretty much the extent of the plot. But more on those nasty white folks in a moment.
While I appreciate the fact when any Hong Kong actor tries to play against type, I still think Donnie Yen is completely miscast as Ip Man. Of course, he’s got the fighting down pat, but as Yen himself said in an interview, “Ip Man is essentially a nerd who fights well.” Donnie Yen is a lot of things, but he’s not a nerd. He looks uncomfortable as the fairly inexpressive Ip Man, as if he’s stuck wearing a Clark Kent disguise when all he wants to be is Superman. Donnie looks like he’s itchin’ to drop the modesty act, bring the swagger back by ripping his shirt off, and gelling his hair up in a crazy exclamation point or something. Of course, that ain’t gonna happen. As a side note, I watched Yuen Woo-Ping’s True Legend the other day, and I have to say that Vincent Zhao Wen-Zhou seems more suited to playing a guy like Ip Man. He may not have the box office clout, but he seems to fit Ip Man’s “straight arrow”-type personality. For good or for ill, I think Donnie needs to be Donnie.
Now let’s talk about the film’s second half…
As someone who studies Asian American literature and film, I’d say that I’m pretty cognizant of questionable, if not downright racist portrayals of non-white characters in American popular culture. Ip Man 2 provides me with one of those rare opportunities to look at things from the other side, as it’s a film that portrays whites in a less than favorable light. Of course, this isn’t anything new in Hong Kong cinema, but this time around, I was really struck by how one-dimensional the portrayal was in a sequel to an award-winning film.
Generally speaking, I would say that some of the most rewarding films do not possess a clear moral, and in fact, resist pat answers about life’s big questions. Ip Man 2’s message is pretty clear and can be boiled down to this: Chinese people may have their differences, but they should put them aside because, hey, they have a common enemy — the white man. And not just white people, but the loudest, most racist, and most obnoxious white people you’ve seen outside of a Jerry Springer episode — the ludicrously named Mr. Twister (Darren Shahlavi) and the sniveling Chief Inspector (Charles Mayer). The less said about their performances the better; let’s just say neither of them are exactly Christoph Waltz in the acting department.
“I CAN’T STOP SHOUTING! SERIOUSLY, I THINK I NEED TO SEE A DOCTOR!! AAARGH!”
Now, I don’t disagree that loud, racist, and obnoxious white people exist. Some of them even have their own television shows on Fox News. And I do understand that this film is historically situated during a time of British imperialism, where the English likely mistreated the local Chinese. I get that; I really do. There’s nothing wrong with shedding a little light on an unpleasant time in history. But while watching the latter part of Ip Man 2, I had a hard time believing that a film like this could be made in 2008. As one half of a white person myself, I wasn’t offended that the film denigrates whites, but I was a little put off by the way the simplistic, purposely vague, and downright cheap manner in which it tries to play on the “ethnic pride” of the Chinese viewer, whether he/she be from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, or elsewhere. As if aware of the implications of this tactic, the filmmakers, ripping a page from Rocky IV, tack on a speech by Ip Man, who pleads for universal human understanding. But unlike the film Wilson Yip is cribbing from, you don’t see the hostile audience empathize with Ip Man as the match is going on just as the Russians did with Rocky. They admired his tenacity, whereas the white people in Ip Man 2 were screaming for blood all the way up until Mr. Twister got rabbit punched into submission. Unlike the admittedly cheesy Rocky IV-turnaround, the complete 180 that the white characters in Ip Man 2 perform feels completely unearned as it comes completely out of nowhere.
Instead of Rocky IV, Wilson Yip should have been locked in a room and forced to watch Heroes of the East and Fist of Legend back-to-back as a way to understand the best way to present what could otherwise be very jingoistic and lunk-headed material in a responsible way.
And one more thing: after Fearless, True Legend, Ip Man, and Ip Man 2 can we retire the whole “Chinese fighting foreigners in tournaments” climax? It wouldn’t be so bad, if they didn’t ALL LOOK EXACTLY THE SAME — same set decoration, same color palette, same everything! Or so it seems anyway.
Man, if this “Chinese versus evil Whitey” trend continues, I can’t wait to see a China-made Bruce Lee biopic. It’ll probably make Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story look like a hard-hitting documentary. I’ll bet the movie ends with Bruce Lee defending the wounded pride of the Chinese people by beating the holy hell out Burt “Robin” Ward, Chuck Norris, and David Carradine in a climactic, three-way cage match. Y’know, just like it really happened…right?