Director Stephen Fung brings us the first part of his trilogy with a strange mix of flashy post-modernism and old school kung fu movie that delights and frustrates in equal measure…
The first part of a strangely scheduled trilogy (Tai Chi Hero was released just a couple weeks after this, but the third part is over a year away), Tai Chi Zero is the tale of Lu Chan (newcomer to acting but Martial Arts Champion Yuan Xiaochao), who is pretty handy at the fighting game, partly because of a strange growth on his head. Nicknamed “The Freak”, it appears that this growth is a blessing and a curse. If it gets hit, he turns into a whirling dervish, a superhuman fighting machine!
However, using this also seems to be slowly killing out young hero. So he is sent off to learn Chen Style Tai Chi in the remote Chen Village, the change of style apparently the key to him prolonging his life. Thing is, the villagers simply are not allowed to share their secret knowledge, and led by Herbalist Chen Yunia (Angelababy, model turned ubiquitous actress) they constantly rebuff his attempts to be allowed to train with them, not even being granted an audience with Yunia’s Father, the Master of the technique. He is assisted by an old villager (Tony Leung, from more films than I could ever list), who takes him under his wing and gives him somewhat oblique advice.
At the same time, Yunia’s fiance Fang Zijing (Taiwanese heartthrob Eddie Pang) has returned from the West full of education and a Stovepipe hat. Sadly his well intentioned attempts to get the village to embrace the modernisation of the West, such as Electricity and Railways, fall on deaf ears. His frustration eventually leads him to taking more drastic measures, bringing The British Army, and English Girl he actually loves and a Giant track laying machine called “Troy No. 1” to town – the village is going to get that railroad whether it likes it or not, and frankly it is just in the way! So the basic thread of the film is – can Lu Chan convince the villagers to teach him the techniques which could save his life, can he help them beat off the evil British threat to their way of life, and maybe find a little romance with the spurned Yunia? All in 90 minutes, leaving enough open for another two movies?
This one is a real conundrum. One the one hand, visually the film is an utter treat. Taking inspiration from videogames, much in the same way Scott Pilgrim vs. the World did, the film utilises lots of on screen graphics to add a new level to the action – whether it be a life meter or amusing descriptions of the fighting technique used, or as a visual cue to when Chen Style Tai Chi is in use. This extends to the in-film introduction of the bigger stars who pop up in the film – each first appearance is highlighted by an on screen graphic telling us who they are and what they are famous for. It is a fun idea, and not as distracting as you might think. Fung also uses all the little visual tricks he has in his armoury, the best being a POV sequence and an utterly delightful flashback to Lu Chan’s childhood done in the style of a Black and White silent movie. There’s more fun to be had when Fung uses more traditional tropes – such as Lu Chan taking on some barrel chested British bare knuckle Boxer in the heart of “Troy No. 1” (albeit a little non-sequitur), or when the Villagers team up to face off the Army Kung Fu Hustle-style.
On the other hand though, when you look beneath the clever stuff the film is actually not only bland, but actually rather heartless. The general story is nothing we haven’t seen before, and it is quite shocking actually just how little happens over the course of the film. It’s fast paced, evoking the hey day of Hong Kong Cinema, but it actually does not pack an awful lot of story in. Lu Chan seems a nice enough guy, but he is utterly one-dimensional, focussed only on trying to learn Chen Style Tai Chi. Yuan Xiachao seems a nice enough guy, but he doesn’t simply have the charm and charisma required for someone to hold such a film together. This is especially evident when up against a proper actor like Tony Leung, who can provide more depth when just wryly grinning or raising an eyebrow.
It also struggles to really provide a true threat in the shape of Fang Zijing. Eddie Pang appears lost in his role, partly because his character is not really that evil, just a bit conflicted and frustrated. For once, it might have been better for him to be some kind of moustache twirling pantomime villain. The script and backstory doesn’t really help him though, with his relationship with Yunia being barely explored before some other girl he actually loves is bought before us. This is doubly annoying as it means that we don’t really get a sense that he is betraying Yunia, and therefore there is no tension when she both finds out what is going on and with regards to that obvious romance that will brew between her and Lu Chan.
The other performances are perfectly reasonable, but the lack of any interesting character arcs don’t really give the cast much to impress with. Tony Leung is great, but then he can do this in his sleep. The stand out is actually Angelababy, who I have a bit of a love/hate with usually. I think there is talent there, but she is so perfect visually (let’s be honest, she is as much a manufactured creation visually as much of this film is), that it is sometimes hard to take her too seriously. I really didn’t expect her to be able to pull off the physical aspects of the role. However, whilst she isn’t a proper action hero, she has an element of grace about her that means that she does pull it off, with the help of SFX, careful camera placement and wirework. The action sequences are a bit of a disappointment too – once you strip away all the clever visuals, Action Director Sammo Hung has not really bought any imagination or thrills to this component of the film. Which seems odd as it is unashamedly a Kung Fu film.
Possibly because the trailer going around is actually for Zero and Hero, the Steampunk elements that appeared to be prevalent are actually reduced to the impressive but someone sedentary “Troy No. 1”. It is a mean looking beast, but actually as a threat it is far too easily nullified. The film also just crashes to a halt. Things are set up for the next film, but this means this movie really struggles to stand on it’s own. I can’t imagine just coming back to this movie to watch on its own merits, and even if the trilogy as a whole makes more sense, that’s a pretty major investment in time for something as slight as this.
There is much to enjoy here, but it’s a bit like going to the sweetshop: there’s lots of pretty labels, and sugary goodness, but it’s not enough to keep you sustained in the long run, and you may well end up feeling a little unwell rather than having any hunger sated. It is worth watching, just keep your expectations in check.