Harmonious Fists: Ip Man 2 and Biutiful

A boxer in conflict and man in a box.

Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen‘s lusty, provocative, visually gorgeous Ip Man 2 is an ideal barometer for the aspirations of Hong Kong — and by extension, Chinese — popular filmmaking today, even if it only thinks of itself as a crowd-pleasing actioner. Produced by Raymond Wong‘s Mandarin Films as the second installment in the ongoing biography of renowned martial arts master Ip Man (played by Hong Kong box-office sensation Yen), part two picks up Ip’s story in 1949. The deceptively mild-mannered family man is trying to set up a school to teach Crown Colony residents the art of Wing Chun kung fu, described as a “close-combat style” from Ip’s hometown of Foshan, Guangdong. In typical martial-arts-pic fashion, a newcomer must battle his way to prominence. If he and his students can’t whup competing schools’ fighters, he’ll never gain their respect.

The street toughs on Ip’s block violently object to his presence, but he easily clobbers them and then has to face their boss, Master Hung (HK movie legend Sammo Hung Kam Bo, who also did the fight choreography), and the leaders of the other local martial arts academies. Step by step up the ladder of bosses goes Ip Man, convincing skeptics that the “girlish” Wing Chun style is every bit as lethal as Monkey Kung Fu, Hung Ga, and other competing disciplines.

Nice-guy Ip bucks the trend in Hong Kong fistic entrepreneurs — he lets his pupils pay on a sliding scale, doesn’t brag or talk much at all, seems to shun wealth, refuses to pay bribes, and (gasp!) smokes cigarettes. He looks more like an accountant than a killer. Indeed, he regularly pulls his punches even against vicious opponents.

But as Ip slugs and kicks his way to the top of the Hong Kong food chain, the nastiness of his adversaries manages to bring out the righteous anger in him. Master Hung and the other bosses pay tribute to a corrupt British police official who’s contemptuous of all Chinese. Symbolic of that disdain is the arrival in town of “Twister” (Darren Shahlavi), a loud and hammy Western-style boxing champion from England who takes colonial disrespect of the locals to dangerous new levels by challenging not only kung fu fighters but seemingly the entire native population to a grudge match. Suddenly the honor of the Chinese people is at stake, and Ip Man does not shirk his responsibility. A new brawl breaks out roughly every six minutes throughout the entire movie.

Fans of Hong Kong and Chinese movies know that throughout the past fifty years the relevance, and the trendiness, of the former British colony’s film industry have ebbed and flowed like the fortunes of a Macau gambler. From the 1960s glory days of the Shaw Brothers and King Hu, through the Eighties and early-Nineties international high period, when such filmmaking luminaries as Jackie Chan, John Woo, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, and Wong Kar Wai made HK productions required viewing in festivals and theaters around the world, Cantonese films have set the pace for vigorous, inventive filmmaking with the emphasis on action.

Since then, in the cooled-off era of Jet Li, Johnnie To, Andy Lau, and Stephen Chow, and with the emergence of Mandarin-dialect soundtracks and pan-Chinese themes, expensive prestige productions have gained favor over rough-and-tumble Kowloon street rumbles. Taiwanese-American Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the acknowledged game-changer. After that critical and popular hit, glossy production values and commercial appeal trumped wild-hair unpredictability. Hong Kong and big brother China now tend to play the Hollywood game of sequels and safe, middle-of-the-road entertainment — with slick visuals and state-of-the-art effects instead of “wire-fu” flying combatants. These days if a Hong Kong movie is a “local hit,” it could play to a potential audience of more than a billion — no need to kowtow to American taste any more.

But stateside box office can’t hurt. Ip Man 2 combines the rapid-fire violence and solid martial arts skills of Hong Kong’s good old days with extravagant sets (shot in Shanghai) and ultra-sharp high-def cinematography, wrapped up in the bright personalities of actors Yen and Hung. That’s more than enough to offset the retread “foreign devils” plot, with pale ghosts and red-haired sailors getting their long-overdue comeuppance at the hands of honest and fearless Chinese patriots. (For a subtler, funnier, and more joyful variation on colonial shenanigans, with just as many punch-outs, try Jackie Chan’s Project A films.) It’s wonderful to see the smiling face of number-one all-time “fighting fat man” Sammo Hung again — even if his onscreen exertions did lead to cardiac surgery mid-production. He reportedly finished all his work before going to the hospital.

Go ahead and take the uncut, undubbed, unashamed US release of Ip Man 2 as a metaphor for current Yankee-Chinese relations. It remains to be seen if American multiplex moviegoers will accept subtitles with their fisticuffs, but in Master Ip’s patient yet forceful struggle for respect there’s undoubtedly a lesson for China-phobes everywhere: Play fair and fear no one.

As he gets older, Javier Bardem is starting to resemble Anthony Quinn at the same age. That’s one of the thoughts that occurred to us while sitting through Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s Biutiful, in which actor Bardem plays a Barcelona resident with enough problems to occupy all the characters in a regular Iñárritu film like Babel.

Uxbal (Bardem) is dying of prostate cancer, but he’s too busy buying knockoff purses from a gay Chinese sweatshop owner (Cheng Tai Shen), supplying his crew of illegal Senegalese street vendors, looking out for one of the vendors’ wives (Diaryatou Daff), dealing with his two-timing brother (Eduard Fernández), and picking up after his screwy ex-wife (Maricel Álvarez) to devote much time to his young son and daughter. Then there are the recurring death dreams starring his late father. Uxbal needs a vacation. And we need a break from Iñárritu’s needlessly fractured, misery-and-mishap-laden parables of hectic modern life in a shrinking world full of desperate people.

Maybe someday he’ll make a film with two or three characters interacting in a defined space. Biutiful takes a halting step in that direction with its Catalonian setting — someone must have taken him aside and told him about that unity of time and place thing. Try it, you may like it.


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