Ip Man 2 (2010): Continuing the Tale

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Directed again by Wilson Yip (for the last time in the series) Ip Man 2 continues the tale of Ip Man and his rise to worldwide fame. There have been less complaints about the film makers “frugality” with actual events this time around. Picking up where Ip Man finished, the film takes place in Hong Kong.

Donnie Yen reprises his role as the modest yet powerful Wing Chun master Ip Man. But he is not alone, he’s got company from several actors from the first film. Actors Simon Yam, Lynn Hung, Siu-Wong Fan, and Li Chak are all back reprising their roles from the first film.

One very delightful addition to the cast is Sammo Hung, who choreographed Ip Man 1 and 2, playing the overbearing martial artist master Hung-Chun Nam. Despite recovering from major heart surgery just prior to filming, Sammo gives his usual level of acting and (performing all his own stunts and getting injured in the process) fighting.

This time around it’s not just other martial arts masters that Ip Man has to deal with, it’s the occupational British who have claimed Hong Kong for their commonwealth. With an overbearing attitude, which to be far the English in those days practised wherever they happened to occupy, and a clear distaste for the new British commonwealth citizenry; the people who “run” Hong Kong are equal to the Japanese in their attitude if not their actions.

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Despite this being the real focal point of the film, the actors playing the snobby and dislikable English overseers of Hong Kong are abysmal. Not one of them can decide which accent to use sounding like a strange combination of Australian, quasi-English, American, and God knows what else.

Bad accents aside, the acting level was such that I harboured suspicions that the film makers had grabbed foreign tourists off the street to plug into the roles of the villainous British leaders. In a film where most of the climatic scenes take place against these oppressors, it really hurt not only the credibility of the film but it marred the film’s message as well.

Still, the fight scenes were impressive, the students were likeable, irritating and endearing, and Ip Man’s wife was a lot more understanding this time around.

I need to say a quick word about Siu-Wong Fan who got to reprise his role as Jin from the first film, his character is a reformed man after  the experiences from his interactions with Ip in the first film. He gets more of a part to play in the proceedings as a good guy, but then,  he practically disappears for the rest of the film. I loved what he did with Jin and he was easily my favourite character besides Ip and Hung.

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Donnie Yen has gone on record as saying that this is the definitive Ip Man film and that it easily overshadows the first film. I disagree. While he does a brilliant job, again, as Ip; the film doesn’t have quite the same structure or fluidity that the first film offered. The scenes of Ip fighting Master Nam (and his sycophants) could have been a lot longer although, admittedly, the premise of fighting on a loose table top was pretty damned impressive.

When Ip Man 2 was in its pre-production stage, it was going to focus on Ip’s relationship with famous pupil Bruce Lee. Due to their inability to get legal clearance from Lee’s family in time, Lee’s “appearance” in the film is shortened to just a few seconds of a very young Lee “meeting” Ip Man. A short sequence that was amusing, but intimately un-needed, I thought.

Overall, despite Yen’s assurances that this the Ip Man movie that will gain legendary status, I did not enjoy the film nearly as much as I did the first one. Consequently, I’ve given it a 4 out of 5 stars after taking a full star off for the un-even acting skills of the non-Chinese actors in the film.

Although I am sure that all the “foreign” actors in the film were hampered somewhat by working in a film that doesn’t feature English as its main language, a problem that I’ve noticed in most Asian films that feature English or American actors/characters. I hope that the next project they work on doesn’t handicap them as badly as this film did.

This is available on iTunes at the moment.

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Ip Man (2008): Donnie Yen’s Masterful Performance

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It is not often that a film benefits from having not just one legend, but two associated with it. Ip Man has two. Starring the legendary Donnie Yen in what is quite possibly his best role ever and featuring choreography by the legendary Sammo Hung. (Who when asked how he was going to work with Yen to direct the action scenes, Hung replied matter-of-factly, “With my mouth.”) *Wikipedia* 

Both men are well-known for their fight choreography with Sammo nudging Donnie out by sheer number of years that he’s been practising his craft.

Directed with past Yen collaborator  Wilson Yip, Ip Man is the “true story” of Yip Man grandmaster of Wing Chun and master of film legend Bruce Lee. Touted as being semi-biographcal, the film is pretty liberal with the “truth” as things of this nature tend to be. While the rudimentary facts may be correct a lot of things were added to make the film more entertaining.

Despite this frugality with the real facts, the film is a powerful one. The recreation of Foshan in Shanghai looks so authentic you feel as if the film company had really gone back in time to shoot the scenes.

Some complaints were raised about Ip Man’s house being incorrect and that he never shovelled coal during the occupation and the facts of his move to Hong Kong are misleading. But as the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance says, “print the legend.” Or in this case, make it up.

Yen is stunning as the placid, peace-loving martial artist who won’t give lessons and spars with the local masters privately in order to save them the public embarrassment of being beaten.

At one point, he has to take on a usurper from outside the town. This ruffian fights his way through all the Foshan martial art instructors until only Ip Man is left. Going to his home, the outsider brings what looks like the members of every school in the town to watch him beat Ip Man.

Everyone in Foshan knows that Ip Man will be victorious and he is.

Everything changes in 1937 when the Japanese invade China and this is where majority of the drama and tension come into the film.

The legendary Sammo Hung.
The legendary Sammo Hung.

The fight scenes are exciting, original, and furious. The Wing Chun style is breathtaking to watch and the other martial arts battles are impressive as well.

The entire cadre of actors in the film sold their characters and I spotted quite a few familiar faces in it.

My only complaint was that in some instances parts of the story were a bit “over the top” so that it almost felt like a “kitchen sink” drama instead of a biopic. But theatricality aside the film looks, overall, fantastic and I got caught up with the characters and the “true” story completely.

A real 5 out of 5 stars for a film that had me munching my popcorn furiously throughout. I’m now going to “watch’ my way through the rest of the films in this four film series.

Even if you don’t love martial arts films the story of Yip Man could turn you into a fan.

The real Ip Man (Yip Man) and a young Bruce Lee.
The real Ip Man (Yip Man) and a young Bruce Lee.

Invitation Only (2009) Taiwan’s First Slasher Horror Film

Directed by Kevin Ko and billed as Taiwan‘s first ever slasher horror film, Invitation Only is a good solid step into the world of slasher horror; it even has a heavy metal song playing over the closing credits.

The film received mixed reviews upon its release this may be down to the fact that (like most Asian films) it has two different versions; a Taiwanese cut and a Hong Kong cut. It is Kevin Ko’s debut film. Shot in High Definition and on a shoe string budget he manages to make quite a solid little film.

A young limo driver gets called in on his day off to drive an important man around the city. The unfortunate driver is Wade Chen (Bryant Chang) and his passenger is Mr Yang (Jerry Huang) the CEO of a huge construction company in the country. Wade bumps into glamorous model Dana (Maria Ozawa) who he later finds in the back of his limo in mid-coital position with Mr Yang.

Yang gets out of the car and tells Chen that he doesn’t need him for the rest of the day. The next day Yang gives Chen an invitation to a fancy party that he says he cannot attend. He instructs Chen to tell people there that his is Yang’s cousin and that his (Yang’s) manager will provide Chen with clothing and money for the party.

Chen accepts and he reads the back of the invitation which says, ‘What is your wildest dream?’

When he goes to the party he meets a girl named Hitomi (Julianne Chu) and they seem to hit it off. A man named Warren (Kristian Brodie) talks to the party members and explains that this is an annual event. He goes on to explain that these are set up to introduce new members to this exclusive club; a club that allows its members to realize their wildest dreams.

Warren then calls out to the five new members that have been invited that night: Chen, Hitomi, Legislator Jen, Holly, and Richard Kao. The five new members take a bow and they are then led off to another section of the party to receive their dream wish.

Four of the five new members.

Chen asks for a fantastic sports car and he is perplexed when he finds that Hitomi asked for a childhood teddy bear as her wildest dream. As Richard Kao is led off to get his dream (the piano that Mozart composed his great music on) the other see a film about them. It turns out that none of them are who they appear to be. They have all claimed to be someone else.

They realize that the party has been some sort of ruse to get them there and they decide to leave. Unfortunately they have been locked in and they must find a way out. As the group attempt to escape, they start getting picked off one by one.

Considering that the party takes place in a warehouse the setting of the film is nothing to write home about; some critics complained about the setting. But, if you consider the reason for the party and what is really going on there, it makes perfect sense. Like an illegal rave, if you are going to be killing off some of your guests, you don’t want your party being held at a regular venue.

Critics called Invitation Only a journey into torture porn and to a degree they are right (depending of which version of the film you see) but as this is a Taiwanese film it is not too overpowering. Tai’ films are as a rule cautious affairs, their standard horror films have only begun to pick up pace and the same is true for this film.

They have hit all the right notes for this to be a good standard “slasher” film. The teaser at the beginning of the film; the set up of the party and its surprise twist; the ambiguous ending and the hard rock score for the closing credits all do a fine job in establishing the films bona fides.

As a film debut Kevin Ko impresses and I hope to see further films from this director. He shows a good eye for detail and even though some of the prosthetics for the film were a little cheap looking, he framing of the torture scenes helped to overcome this minor setback.

The film is billed as the first Tai’ slasher and as far as I know it is the first film to feature female nudity and a sex scene in the film. The Taiwanese film world has always been a bit prudish about female actresses and their roles in film. They aren’t too pleased to have Tai’ actresses kiss too much or show too much. So it was a surprise to see one of the women “bare all” in one of the scenes.

A great film to watch for the horror fan and one that will have the slasher fan nodding and smiling as they remember the early slasher films of the 70’s and 80’s.

Model Dana, a prelude to a nude scene.

Phantom by Jo Nesbo: Harry’s Hat Trick

Phantom by Jo Nesbo is his latest Harry Hole book in the series. It is quite easily the most intricate of all the Hole novels to date. Impressive in its length and even more impressive in scope; Harry has more plates spinning than a circus clown.

Harry is back in Oslo from Hong Kong where he has sobered up, straightened out and is working as a debt collector. He is fit, tan and wearing a new suit. Despite this “moneyed” appearance however, it’s the same old Harry. Still sporting the Frankenstein scar on the side of his face from his last life or death scenario and only marginally in charge of his old inner demons.

He has come to Oslo for a very personal reason. Oleg, his ex-lover’s son, is on remand for murder. It appears that on top of growing a metre and a bit in the height department, Oleg has been sampling a new drug. Called violin it is more addictive than heroin and less likely to cause an over dose. His choice of drug and friends has put him in a bad position and Harry has come to prove Oleg innocent.

We meet a dying drug addict at the beginning of the book. He has the misfortune to be blocking a mother rat’s access to her nest and young. As this young man lies dying, he relives his short life in his mind. We learn that his name is Gusto and that he looks an awful lot like Elvis, not the spitting image, but he has the same charisma and effect on people. It leads him into the interesting life of a thief and drug addict/pusher.

It is this young man who Oleg is accused of shooting and killing. Harry goes to see his old boss and asks for his job back. Harry is told that this is an “open and shut” case. He is not to investigate it and if he wants to return to the police force in Oslo, he will have to try some place else. Harry decides to investigate anyway.

He learns of Oslo’s leading drug lord a man known as Dubai. He is also known as a phantom, because no one has ever seen him; no one that is, who lives to tell the tale. Harry promises Rakel that he will clear Oleg of the charges and find who the real killer is.

He also learns that Dubai has put all the other drugs pushers out of business with the help of the Oslo police and that the new drug violin is manmade and does not require the usual opiate base that has to be smuggled in. In fact, violin is being smuggled out of the country to the very place where the poppies grow.

He approaches the last of his dwindling number of friends for information and approaches his  old nemesis, Mikael Bellman and his thuggish toady for the same reason. He also meets an old man called Cato who, among other things, masquerades as a priest.

While following the clues that will clear up who really shot Gusto, Harry will learn of lost innocence and a young romance gone sour. He will discover that corruption in Oslo reaches very high in the police bureau and he will also learn just how far he will go to protect a loved one. He will also eventually meet his criminal doppelgänger; a doppelgänger that does not look like Harry but is his evil equivalent.

Number 8 in the series, Phantom weaves a web that ebbs and flows, constantly changing the faces and postions of the players trapped in it. As per usual, Harry is in a race against time and someone wants him stopped…dead.

I cannot praise this book enough and I have to literally hold myself back from revealing too much about the plot and the book’s players. This is easily a 5 star book that I could not put down till I finished it. Do yourself a favour and read it!

Author Jo Nesbo.

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo: Has Harry Gone Down the Hole?

In what is apparently the eighth instalment of the Harry Hole series, Harry is in Hong Kong. He’s smoking opium and owes the Triad a great deal of money. Kaja Solness has travelled to Hong Kong on a mission to find Harry and bring him back to Oslo. They have a serial killer; a brutal, savage and bloody serial killer and they need Harry’s help to stop him. But is Harry Hole in any shape to return? More importantly, does he want to return?

When we left Harry at the end of The Snowman, he was an emotional wreck. The toll of catching the Snowman was a harsh and personal one. Harry has gone underground in Hong Kong to stop thinking about everything.

Jo Nesbo has done his research well on the hunting of serial killers. He has obviously studied the current and past experts who worked with the FBI to catch, among others, The Green River Killer and Ted Bundy.

The toll in real life is horrible. FBI Profiler John Douglas, who helped police catch Gary Ridgeway (the green river killer) and Wayne Williams (Augusta Georgia child murders) and more, had a real life breakdown from the stresses of having the ability to “put himself” in the minds of his suspects. He has written about his experiences. His first book, Mindhunter (1995) and his second, Into the Darkness (1997) explained how he worked and the toll it took on him. Although he didn’t realise how much of a toll until the stress affected his health.

Douglas has been portrayed in fiction several times because of his high profile. I don’t think that Nesbo’s Harry Hole is necessarily Douglas in Norwegian clothing. But he has done his research well enough to build Harry as a real person who suffers horribly for his innate talent. He also suffers from guilt; guilt over his family and for the fellow police officers who have died while working with him.

In The Leopard, two women have been murdered. They have nothing in common apart from their gender and the fact that both died from drowning on their own blood.

Harry’s old boss Gunnar Hagen is desperate for Harry to solve the murders. The reason for this desperation becomes clear when Harry meets Mikael Bellman the head of Kripos, a new crime division that Bellman wants to make into Norway’s Scotland Yard. Bellman’s “empire building” is brutal and single minded. Hagen wants to solve the case so the Ministry of Justice doesn’t make Bellman the “Napoleon” of Kripos.

As more bodies turn up and more victims are brutally murdered, it becomes a race against time, Bellman and his Kripos team and the mole that Harry appears to have on his team. And of course the killer.

Meanwhile, time is running out for Harry’s father Olav who is dying in the hospital from cancer. Harry is also still fighting all his old demons as an alcoholic and he is now smoking illegally smuggled opium as well.

As the battle for catching the murderer changes sides and targets, Harry turns to Katrine Bratt (whom he worked with in The Snowman and [SPOILER] who also had a nervous breakdown near the end of that book) to help him on the case by using the old military search engines to find information about suspects and victims on the internet.

In this book everything appears to be at stake, Harry’s father’s life, Harry’s sanity and his love/hate affair with the Crime Office which is in danger of being made redundant by Bellman and his pet project of Kripos.

The Leopard has a very international feel to it. Hong Kong, the Congo and Australia all figure into the plot. As Harry, Bellman and Harry’s team continue to peel away layers that will reveal who the killer is, Harry’s boss Hagen is searching for ammunition to use against Mikael Bellman to keep him from taking over his job.

Jo Nesbo has outshone himself in this book. Death, drugs, alcohol, stress, doubt and guilt all play a huge part in this novel. The final race to catch the killer will have you on the edge of your seat with tension.

One hell of a great read!

Jo Nesbo, Norwegian Maestro.