Editor’s note: With Tai Chi Zero now officially released in theaters, here is a re-run of our Fantastic Fest review, originally published on September 30, 2012.
The martial arts genre has always featured period films fairly prominently, but it seems the Hong Kong and mainland China film industries have made a home there in recent years with no intention of leaving it anytime soon. Truth be told the biggest problem with the pseudo genre is that it’s swallowed Donnie Yen whole. He hasn’t made a contemporary film since 2007’s bone-crackingly brilliant Flash Point! But Yen aside, there are so many of these films that it’s getting difficult to tell them apart.
Writer Kuo-fu Chen and director Stephen Fung recognized this fact and set out to tell a tale that would stand apart from the herd. The ace up their sleeve is a visual style that brings slow-mo, onscreen graphics and the inclusion of steam-punk elements to their story of a young man who travels to a remote village to learn a very specific and equally powerful form of martial arts. His quest is interrupted by Western-led intruders bent on leveling the town to make way for a railroad.
On paper, and in trailer form, Tai Chi Zero seems like a success, but the end result is a mixed bag of frenetic action, humorous asides and a silliness that just won’t quit.
Yang Lu-chan (Yuan Xiaochan) is an effective warrior, but his secret weapon is the uncontrollable violence he exerts whenever the fleshy “horn” sprouting from his forehead is struck. It sends him into a mystical, effects-driven rage that trounces enemies for a limited amount of time. He’s advised that these incidents are going to kill him eventually so he sets out for a small mountain village rumored to be home to a very special form of tai chi that just may save his life.
Once he arrives he’s shut out by a populace who refuses to train outsiders. Attempts to force the issue are met with beat downs from just about every member of the community including the oldest woman and the youngest girl. His efforts are interrupted when outsiders corrupted by the Great White Satan insist on running a railroad through the town. The stage is set for a climactic battle between villagers and invaders, good and evil, and mystical tai chi and giant mechanical damn machines.
Well, machine singular anyway. And that in a nutshell is the film’s biggest problem. It teases grand elements that play only a small role in the overall film. We see the giant walking machine actually lay a few feet of tracks before plopping down for good. We’re treated to a couple cool and fun fights before physical comedy and more obvious wire work take over. We’re introduced to Yang’s mother as played by the eternally beautiful Shu Qi only to see her die a few minutes into the movie.
The only element that stays relevant for the duration is Fung’s commitment to comedy, and while much of it misses the mark or overstays its welcome there are enough truly funny bits to make the film worthwhile. The laughs start with each character’s first appearance onscreen is accompanied with text stating their character name, real actor name and often a factoid about them. Some like Xiaochan are real-world gold medal winners while others like Andrew Lau (director of the Infernal Affairs trilogy, Legend of the Fist and more) are icons in the Asian film community.
Names aren’t the only things getting graphical treatment here as the film plays a bit like Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle) meets Scott Pilgrim as comical martial arts moves and props share the screen with comic-book pop-ups. It all works well as entertainment, but it soon becomes clear that it’s also serving as a distraction from the lack of worthwhile action. There are a couple fun fights in the first half, but they’re far more gimmicky than inventive or impressive.
Tai Chi Zero is a step in the right direction as it infuses real fun and technical skill into the period film genre, but it’s little more than a first and second act in search of a third. The end credits feature an extra scene as well as a trailer for the sequel, and it seems obvious that all of the promised steam-punk action and hand to hand combat will be found there. Imagine if Star Wars had ended with Luke and the rest of the rebels flying towards the Death Star but then seeing the end credits roll before they got there. Continuing an overarching story across films is fine, but not even finishing one in the first film? Not cool at all.
The Upside: Funny at times; some snazzy special effects; driving score
The Downside: Action scenes are more stylistic than combative; few actual fights; tonal clashes; promised steam punk element is limited; not a complete story
On the Side: The sequel, Tai Chi Hero, is due out shortly