Movie Review | ‘Tai Chi Zero’ entertains but overreaches
Published: Monday, October 29, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 29, 2012 14:10
After shaking off the numbness that results from watching the 95-minute martial arts barrage that is “Tai Chi Zero,” there are several distinct impressions one can take away from the film.
The first is that director Stephen Fung clearly enjoyed creating it. The movie takes no shame in appearing indulgent, and this eventually becomes part of the film’s charm. There is a sense that Fung does not want the movie to end, and many viewers will find themselves joining him in his infectious enthusiasm. This martial-arts adventure is so bizarre, unique and energetic that it is difficult not to be entertained.
That said, viewers will also feel that Fung got carried away at points. The film’s eclectic and ostentatious aesthetic is amusing at first, but it becomes exhausting about halfway through.
An opening sequence -- complete with effects and choreography familiar to many modern martial-arts films -- leads into a bizarre, comedic flashback. A montage of manga-style animated action precedes a fight scene with a distinctly arcade game appearance, reminiscent of the “Scott Pilgrim” (2004-2010) comic book series. Graphics trace fighters’ movements as they connect with one another, while flashy captions announce the titles of various techniques.
By the time the word “K.O” appears onscreen, literally spelling out defeat, the audience is left laughing, though not quite as much as it was at the start. Fung’s adaption of the archetypical kung fu film attempts to appeal to a new generation of viewers who were raised on video games and the internet. While the movie is unique, the chaotic stylistic collage seems to mock the audience’s attention span.
Of the many visual styles Fung explores in the film, his most jarring and distinctive addition is a steampunk aesthetic. Antagonists dressed in neo-Victorian clothing pilot coal-fed monstrosities made of steel cogs and gears, contrasting with the humbly robed heroes. It is an unusual way to present the tension between the “traditional” Eastern lifestyle and that of the imperialistic West. The contrast would be more visually striking if the film wasn’t already overcrowded with equally distinct imagery.
It’s impossible to talk about “Tai Chi Zero” without discussing its visuals, but there is a story in it as well, buried as it may be under flamboyant effects and production design. In fact, the film is the first of a trilogy, with the upcoming “Tai Chi Hero” slated for release this coming January.
“Tai Chi Zero” introduces the saga’s main character, Lu Chan, played by Olympic gold medalist Jayden Yuan. Lu Chan is an endearingly naive but gifted fighter. Born with a stunted horn on his head that brands him as a martial-arts prodigy and endows him with almost supernatural power, Lu Chan lives the life of a warrior. When he discovers that the use of his power is slowly draining him of life, Lu Chan makes a pilgrimage to Chen village to learn a secret and powerful form of Tai Chi, which will supposedly save him.
However, the inhabitants of Chen village refuse to teach their techniques to outsiders, and Lu Chan is repeatedly shunned. To prove himself, he attempts to rescue the village and its inhabitants from outside forces that threaten to destroy the villagers’ way of life forever. Along the way, he develops a romance with Yuniang Chen (Angelababy) and in turn, a rivalry with her previous fiancee, Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng). Essentially, the film, which is set in historical China, follows a story arc fairly typical for a martial arts production.
It’s unremarkable in terms of plot, and the writing does leave something to be desired, but “Tai Chi Zero” is entertaining nonetheless. Sammo Hung’s choreography is simply outstanding and the action does its best to compensate for the unexceptional performances.
On a visual level, fans of the genre will find much to be impressed with, even if Fung’s stylistic vision is somewhat lacking compared to other recent Chinese martial-arts films. Even though “Tai Chi Zero” does not realize the potential a diverse mix of aesthetics can bring, its approach is intriguing and creates hope that Fung’s later films will be more effective in this respect. “Tai Chi Zero” ultimately overreaches, but it still delivers a fun, comic adventure that doesn’t want for visual extravagance.