It's pandering, man! ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Monday, May 10, 2010

It's pandering, man!

Ip Man 2
My rating:

I did a very foolish thing just before I watched this film - I went and got into a flamewar on about it. It annoyed me how so many people were buying into the all-foreigners-want-to-bully-the-Chinese theme of it and its predecessor without realizing how insecure it makes them out to be. The reason why this was a foolish thing to do - besides the inherent stupidity of internet pissing contests - is that I hadn't even watched the sequel yet, and getting my e-penis involved would probably only bias me against the movie.

Well, colour me biased then. Ip Man 2 - at least in its second half - is shockingly bad.

It is now 1949, and Ip Man (Donnie Yen) has fled Foshan for Hong Kong with his wife (Xiong Dai-lin) and family. He starts a Wing Chun kungfu school, and while business is slow at first, he gradually finds students - starting with Wong Leung (Huang Xiaoming) - and makes a name for himself. However, this runs him afoul of Hong Kong's community of martial artists, over which Master Hung (Sammo Hung) rules like a gang boss; Hung sends his students to harass Ip's, demands protection money, challenges Ip to a duel, and generally makes life difficult for him. But soon they must come together at a boxing tournament organised by corrupt police superintendent Wallace (Charlie Mayer), during which arrogant boxer Twister (Darren Shahlavi) insults Chinese kungfu.

I swear, it's like there are two diametrically opposing creative visions at work here, in both the Ip Man films. The first half of Ip Man 2 is pretty compelling stuff; the formerly idle rich Ip is still struggling to make a living, and it's easy to sympathize with him when a neighbour asks if he's found any students yet and all he can do is smile sheepishly. What's really interesting about this part is how it contrasts with the early portion of the first Ip Man. The various schools of Foshan's "kungfu street" treated each other as friends and fellow pursuers of the art; the martial artists of Hong Kong are little more than thugs and gangsters. They kidnap Wong Leung and demand ransom for his release, they lay claim to gang turf, they threaten Ip and his students, and they subject him to various "rules" that mostly involve lining their own pockets. It almost seems to be making the (pretty daring) point that the woes faced by Ip and the ordinary folk of Hong Kong are due to Chinese preying on their fellow Chinese.

Then the gweilos come in. And this is the point where my palm owes an apology to my face for slapping it so hard. It is the year of our Lord 2010, and Hong Kong is still making movies featuring Caucasian characters spouting idiotic English dialogue and played by really, really bad actors. Darren Shahlavi and Charlie Mayer are awful. They're supposed to be British but hardly even bother to do the accent, they are so ridiculously and unbelievably evil that it becomes downright annoying, but it's not even their fault because that's how their characters are written. Wallace is a police chief tasked by his superiors to organise a boxing tournament (huh? Since when is this part of the police's duties?), and not only does he extort money from Hung, he shafts Hung out of the tournament's proceeds, beats up a Chinese newspaper editor (Pierre Ngo), and takes delight in egging Twister on to beat up Chinese martial artists. Because British colonials have nothing better to do than to seek to prove the inferiority of Chinese kungfu.

This. Is. Stupid. It's blatant manipulation on the part of the filmmakers, with zero regard for realism or common sense. I can't believe the two halves are actually the same film; I've never seen a movie fall apart so fast since True Legend. When Twister takes on Hung, the audience of upper-class British expats cheer him on as he beats an old man to death. Later, during his climactic duel with Ip, he throws a punch at Ip after the bell has rung - and not only is he not penalized for it, the judges decide to penalize Ip by disallowing him from using kicks. And finally Ip gives a Kum Ba Yah speech exhorting British and Chinese to respect one another, and that's when I silently mouthed "oh, screw you!" to director Wilson Yip and screenwriter Edmund Kong. For them to end the movie on this, when they just went to such massive lengths to demonize gweilos, is sheer hypocrisy.

I think I'm being incredibly generous by awarding it two and a half stars; it's the first half that earns it, as well as the fight scenes. Because that's what most people are going to this movie for, and for the most part it delivers. Wing Chun is still a terrifically cool kungfu style, and Donnie Yen's centrepiece duel with Sammo Hung is given the appropriate momentousness. Hung's fight scenes suffer a little from too-quick editing, which may have been to hide his poor health during filming, but I'm willing to cut him slack for his stature as a legend of kungfu cinema. The Ip-vs.-Twister fight is, despite the facepalmery surrounding it, pretty exciting too; the boxer's sheer weight and power are just the things to counter Wing Chun's speed and agility, and if Ip emerged pretty much unscathed from all his fights in the first movie, that certainly isn't the case here.

Yen turns in the same classy performance he gave two years ago, and it really deserves to be in a better movie. There are several returning characters, including the now-happily-married northerner Jin (Fan Siu-wong), the now-brain-damaged Quan (Simon Yam) and his son Kong-yiu (Calvin Cheng), and they're all little more than needless cameos; even Xiong Dai-lin has less to do this time around. And then there's Fatso (Kent Cheng), an officer and collaborator with the British police - why yes, there's another collaborator character in this one, but he's nowhere near as interesting or well-developed as Li from the first film. More than one review of this sequel has accused it of recycling its predecessor's plot, and it certainly deserves the charge; me, I'm just appalled at how much worse it is.

And what appalls me the most is how easily Chinese audiences take to this kind of pandering manipulation. I got into that flamewar because the forum was full of comments about how this movie made them "proud to be Chinese". How about being proud of your race for its actual accomplishments, rather than a fictional victory over yet another manufactured foreign bogeyman? When are we going to start earning the rest of the world's respect, instead of always imagining that they're disrespecting us? There's no getting around it; Ip Man 2 is not a film, it's a diatribe, and a hypocritically racist one at that. Wanna know what really shames the Chinese in the eyes of the world? Movies like this.

Expectations: Daphne Iking, don't let me down


dzof said...

Agree that the first half of the film (with the rival kung fu teachers) was more interesting than the second half. In fact, I don't think they needed the second part really at all, and may have benefited more from a gwailo subplot that showed the English manipulating the various Hong Kong factions against one another (although I have no idea what the case was IRL).

Anonymous said...

A good film can have a story that's been recycled a hundred times, I think how the story is presented matters more.

Just my two cents.

TMBF said...

@Anonymous: I believe I made it quite clear that "how the story is presented" sucks.

McGarmott said...

Wow, first time I came across someone who disliked the film this much. I actually liked it a lot, and I came away with the feeling that could very easily slip into being described as 'feeling proud to be Chinese' but could perhaps more accurately stated as 'feeling the whole weight of European aggression against the Chinese bearing down against the Chinese heroic figure and cheering the hero on because he goes on to defeat the European aggressors'.

And yes, it meant that I have a huge capacity for suspension of disbelief; it definitely did not pass unnoticed from me the fact that the caricatured portrayal of the British characters in the film was so grossly overdone, so Hong Kong cinema. But I let that slide, which means I saw it the way the filmmakers intended, I suppose - good East vs bad West. One-dimensional? Very, so sue me. I had a good time.

And mind you, due to my background I'm someone whom my Chinese friends consider one of the most Westernised person they've come across, while my European/American friends consider one of the most Asian of people they know ... so it's not like I'm some ah beng supporting ... well, probably not like those ppl you were arguing with at lowyat lah.

TMBF said...

@McGarmott: Not that I feel the need to be validated by other people's opinions, but - here's another review that gives it the thrashing it deserves:

Nani Aziz said...

the Ip Man is way better than Ip Man 2. it's a bit dull and frustrating. I was expecting more real fighting scene rather than all those camera tricks.

AltWorlder said...

How racist is Jet Li's Fearless compared to this? This question is important.

TMBF said...

@AltWorlder: Fearless did not escape the charge of demonizing foreigners, but it did attempt a balanced viewpoint. Ip Man 2 didn't bother.