Yuen Woo-Ping’s unofficial sequel to his own film proves good films work despite their weaknesses…
The spiritual successor to 1993’s Tai Chi Master, Tai Chi Boxer (or Tai Chi II as it’s known in certain places) is again directed by noted action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (though there is a caveat with that which I will go into) and stars two of the cast members from Master, though not Jet Li nor Michelle Yeoh. We are treated to the story of martial arts student Hak Man (later referred to as Jacky by some of the characters), the son of a noted master, Yeung Shan-Wu. Hak Man has been locked away in his father’s and mother’s retirement home for all of his formative years and yearns to get out and see the local town and area. When he escapes during lessons one day, with the help of his cousin, to perform in the local parade as Lion Dancers, he finds himself in the town where he and his cousin wreck the parade and then save some children. In doing so, he wins the attention of Rose, the daughter of a prominent police officer/official. Of course, this is not going to end well.
Having seen Master first, I was interested in seeing Boxer even if it doesn’t really have anything to do with the former. Yuen Woo-Ping has interested me since I got into him thanks to The Matrix Trilogy. Red Wolf is one of those Ping efforts that doesn’t get as much love as it should since it is essentially a better rip of Under Siege than most. But anyway, to Boxer: I like the mood of this film more than its predecessor. Don’t get me wrong, Master is an awesome movie but the cast and creators of Boxer look like they are having more fun. The film’s plot really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, just something to hang around the actors but at least they don’t try and contradict themselves. Jacky Wu (Fatal Move, SPL, Shaolin (2011)) is perfectly cast in this movie, with his natural martial arts talents being given full effectiveness. Whether he’s leaping around in a Chinese Lion dancers get up, crashing into things on roller-skates or thumping the snot out of the bad guys in a standoff fight, Wu is very good at what he does. He’s not nearly as all-out playful as Jackie Chan nor as dead serious as Jet Li so it’s interesting to see traits of both actors in him. Christy Chung (The Bride with White Hair 2, Bodyguard from Beijing), who is one of my dream Hong Kong actress, plays Rose a bit more clever than purely innocent. She clearly likes her fiancé, Ah Wing (played by Mark Cheng) but she’s not really in love with him. She represents the more modern Chinese woman in turn of the century China but her father and fiancé want her to be traditional. So when Hak Man comes along, he is traditional but doesn’t mind Rose being more modern since he’s never seen the outside world and therefore doesn’t set any boundaries on her. Rose’s father (Shun Lau) is alright as the officious Tsao but the real gold with him is when Rose and Hak Man try to wean him off opium. Darren Shahlavi as the main villain, Smith (oh-ho, we are in generic territory here! And he’s an opium smuggler to boot!), works effectively because he’s really not on screen all the much. He’s the brains behind the operation but lets his lieutenants take care of the minor stuff. Only when things start to go wrong does he amp up and really show off. But Sibelle Hu (The Inspector Wears Skirts I/II/III, Fong Sai Yuk) and Hai Yu (Shaolin Temple I/II/III), as Hak Man’s mother and father, win the best cast members award in this film as their double act is so good. They really act like a couple who’ve been together for years: she can get around him for her son’s sake and he can see straight through her when she’s trying to cover for Hak Man.
The humour in the film comes from the interplay between the characters, especially Sibelle Hu and Jacky Wu. I kept laughing as Wu’s character tried to pronounce Rose’s name but keeps saying the Chinese word for Rat which sounds similar and as Hu’s character tries to instruct her son in a crash course in English. Add to that the knowing glances and winks as Sibelle Hu and Hai Yu dance around each other and it becomes an excellent counterpoint to the action and the “Bwa-ha-ha!!!” moustache-twirling of Smith and his lackeys.
The setting of the film in turn of the century China is excellent as it allows Yuen to cast Shahlavi as the main villain who can go around unchallenged because this was the Treaty era in the country when European colonial powers were strong arming the Chinese into giving them massive concessions of trade and commerce. So foreigners could do whatever they wanted really. Including hanging people and shooting people in the chest, it seems, in this case. I like the ambiguity of the supposedly moral people versus the actual moral people. Yeung doesn’t want his son involved in local affairs but when Hak Man is nearly arrested on trumped up charges, Master Yeung breaks out some fatherly kick assness. Officer Tsao is supposed to root out opium smugglers but spends his time smoking said narcotic. Ah Wing is supposed to be an upholder of the law but spends his time dealing secretly with Smith.
I hope I’m not spoiling things for you guys. As I’ve said, the plot isn’t the draw here, it’s Jacky Wu, Shahlavi and Billy Chow, who appears as Wong, Great Kick of the North (he has a great entrance at the start of the film). Wu and Chow square off a couple of times and the action is quick, sharp and innocent by which I mean both combatants don’t want to kill each other. Shahlavi and Wu’s fights, especially in the climax of the film, are brutal and full of wire work, prop stunts and good physical work.
I said at the start that Yuen Woo-Ping directed this, sure. But only the action scenes, as the dramatic, and I use the word advisedly, scenes were tackled by Xinyan Zhang, presumably because Yuen Woo-Ping didn’t want to or couldn’t. Which is odd, because in one of those bizarre twists in life, Zhang fails to give any gravitas to the dramatic sequences, except Hak Man and Rose’s interactions, with Shahlavi coming off the worse for wear. It seems that unless you’re one of the main cast but not a villain you’re shit out of luck as Dirty Harry would say. The background characters are reduced to tropes and clichés and Rose’s classmates, the democracy supporters, get little to no time to develop until the end and Smith’s henchmen could do with some more hench in their step. On the action side of things, Yuen gets better performances from Shahlavi in terms of his aggressiveness on screen but the chemistry between Wu and Chung just fizzles out. And the aforementioned chemistry that Zhang cultivates is good, with the two leads being comfortable with each other without being flirtatious and it is painful to see it dry up then come back in another scene. Zhang’s strength seems to lie in the jokes and their delivery. You win some, you lose some.
Speaking of the action side, Yuen’s action choreography is amazing with Wu throwing himself into every scene with gusto and using his long braided ponytail as a weapon is a novel approach. Smith is a very aggressive antagonist especially with his methods and his showdown with Hak Man at the end has him striping down to a pair of slacks and shoes and adopting a scorched earth approach to fighting. It’s a bit more measured than Chow Yun Fat and Tony Leung squaring off against Philip Kwok near the end of Hard Boiled. Billy Chow reappears during the showdown and Yuen uses him to great effect. The final denouement is Chinese cinema influenced with a clear cut ending leaving no room for error or interpretation.
Having owned Tai Chi Boxer for longer than I owned Tai Chi Master, it was odd that I didn’t watch Boxer first. But now that I look back on it, if I had watched Boxer first, I would have been in no mood to tackle the more thematically serious Master afterward. That shouldn’t put you off the movie and it stands as a more light hearted effort next to its older brother. I would love to see Cine-Asia reissue this now that they have the resurrected HKL line under them. It’s a good film to have in your Hong Kong Action collection.
Distributor: Hong Kong Legends (UK)
Edition: DVD (2002)
Much as Andy stated in his review of Tai Chi Master, don’t expect too much from this transfer. Film stock from this era wasn’t treated very well and it shows in Boxer with a very soft image, yielding poor sharpness and detail. I would be terrified to buy this on blu ray unless an obscene amount of cash was spent restoring it. Having said that, the DVD doesn’t have any apparent frame damage nor too much dust. Audio-wise, we get a stereo English track and a 5.1 Cantonese track. Trust me, the 5.1 is there for show, everything is front heavy with the slightest of sounds bleeding into the rear channels. This is a ADR looped Cantonese track, meaning all the dialogue was re-recorded after filming. The English dub is as bad as you can imagine from something of the era, with no attempt made to match lip sync. Of course, this being a HKL release we get walking Hong Kong Cinema encyclopedia Bey Logan who just info dumps on us every single thing you would ever need to know about the film, its participants and the people behind it. It is one of the main reasons to buy this version of Tai Chi Boxer.
We also get some excellent interviews with Christy Chung and Darren Shahlavi. Shahlavi’s interview is really detailed and I really appreciated his input plus his footage from a camcorder he brought with him, while on set, is included on the disc and shows how some of the final showdown’s stunts were achieved. Christy Chung’s interview is amazing and she comes across as a funny, articulate girl. Also, for fans of Christy (i.e. me included) she gives an impromptu line reading of doing a sex scene that has to be seen to be believed. There’s also a photo montage of a mixture of publicity and on set photos. Some of them seem to indicate there was another ending shot for the film but not used. One aside, HKL includes a Christy Chung photo gallery on the disc. I swear I’ve seen that same gallery on the Red Wolf HKL Platinum DVD release but I can’t confirm as I don’t have the disc in general use right now. A selection of HKL trailers rounds out the package.