Silly foolish me. When I noticed that the multiplexes offered absolutely nothing good in the way of new releases, I neglected one of my cardinal filmgoing rules: Don't forget the arthouses. So I took another look at my favorite arthouses, and sure enough, there was Tai Chi Zero playing this weekend. Honestly, I didn't know much about this film going in. I only read a single article stating that Tai Chi Zero presented a mix of steampunk and kung-fu.
Let me repeat that: Steampunk and kung-fu. I wish to the depths of my soul that I could come up with something so awesomely crazy.
As soon as I heard that, I knew my ticket was already bought and paid for. I didn't even bother with any reviews or trailers, because there was nothing else I needed to know. There was no question about this movie that couldn't be answered with "Shut up, it's steampunk and kung-fu." I didn't even need to know if it was good or not. Even if this movie stunk, it was practically guaranteed to be an entertaining kind of bad.
And sure enough, this film did not disappoint.
I'll now try to describe the film's premise. Pay attention, because things are about to get very weird.
This is the story of Lu Chan, played by award-winning Wushu master Yuan Xiaochao in his acting debut. Lu Chan is also called "The Freak" because of the horn-like protrusion that he was born with. In truth, this horn is known as the "Three Blossoms of the Crown," a once-in-a-century phenomenon that marks Lu Chan as a martial arts prodigy. He's powerful enough as it is, but touching the horn triggers some kind of reaction that turns Lu Chan into an uber-badass for a short time. But there's a catch.
Every time this power is used, Lu Chan's life force gradually grows weaker. Making matters worse, the Lu Chan was taught kung-fu by a rebel warlord who's only interested in using our adorably naive hero as a weapon. After repeated battles with imperial armies, Lu Chan's horn has gone from red to purple. Once it goes black, he's basically dead. But there is hope.
Part of the problem is that Lu Chan was taught a kung-fu style that's very destructive, both to himself and to everyone around him. Luckily, there's a very different style of kung-fu -- called the Chen style -- that's much easier on the user's spirit. The theory is that if Lu Chan can learn this new style, he can buy a few extra years of life. The only problem is that the Chen style is exclusive to an obscure little hamlet called Chen Village. Every single resident in the village is a master of the Chen style, and they don't teach it to outsiders. Then again, it's not like our hero has any choice: His own life is in danger and everyone he knows is killed in an imperial raid, so it's off to Chen Village we go.
Upon arrival, our hero repeatedly begs and demands to be taught kung-fu. In response, everyone in the village -- old, young, male, female, everyone -- takes turns throwing Lu Chan out of the village, utterly whooping his ass along the way.
Leading the unwelcoming committee is Chen Yunia, played by a model/actress/dancer known only as "Angelababy." She's the daughter of the village grandmaster, she's an unparalleled expert in the Chen style, and she's of course the film's love interest.
Moving on, let's talk about the film's villains. First and foremost is Fang Zijing, played by a Taiwanese/Canadian actor named Eddie Peng. Zijing is a strange paradox: He grew up in Chen Village, though he's somehow technically an outsider (something to do with his name). As a result, Zijing went his entire life being called a wimp, since his outsider status prevented him from learning the Chen style. So he went to study in the Western world, hoping that his education might bring him respect back home.
Also, he's engaged to the love interest. Goes without saying, really.
Anyway, Zijing -- as a representative of the East India Trading Company with full support from the local governor -- seeks to present Chen Village with the latest and greatest in Western technology: A railroad. Zijing tries his best to convince everyone that this is a great boon, but his proposals are laughed away. So, Zijing allies with a beautiful East India officer, who just happens to be his lover on the side.
Together, they introduce Chen Village to "Troy No. 1," a huge steampunk monstrosity that demolishes everything in front of it and lays railroad track behind it. With only seven days to destroy the machine before it destroys the town, Chen Yunia and Lu Chan have to settle their differences and save the day together.
So basically, this is implicitly a conflict of Eastern spirituality and tradition, versus Western technology and progress. I'll warn you now, that's as deep and intellectual as the movie gets.
There's no denying that this is an absolutely brain-dead movie. It's silly, it's superficial, it's cliched, it's predictable, and it's absolutely over-the-top. But here's the thing: This is a kung-fu movie that comes to us straight out of China. Nobody with any brains at all would go to such a film for nuanced performances or creative storytelling. No, we watch these movies to see people beat the crap out of each other in ways that shouldn't be physically possible. Furthermore, even those who've never seen foreign chopsocky B-grade cinema before should at least be familiar with the unintelligible dialogue and the hammy performances that are stereotypical of such movies. A huge part of the genre's charm is in its campiness, and this film is no exception. In fact, I don't think there's ever been a foreign kung-fu movie that embraced its campiness to such a degree.
For the record, this film was written by Kuo-fu Chen, who previously graced us with Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. I thought that movie was crazy (and it was), but I didn't realize just how crazy things could get.
In terms of style, this movie is all over the fucking map. We've got animated segments. We've got Lu Chan's backstory presented as a silent film. We've got fight scenes overlaid with video game graphics. We've got camera movements that no sane DoP would ever think possible or advisable. And the title cards. Oh, the title cards.
The film makes liberal -- most would probably say excessive -- use of CGI title cards. They're used for narration, they're used to introduce new martial arts moves, and they're even used to introduce the cast.
Without exception, every single noteworthy actor is introduced by way of a title card. Every single one. Whenever we meet a new character, "Hey! It's Fung Hak-On as the General! He was a founding member of Jackie Chan's stunt team," or "Look! It's Chen Yunia, played by the model Angelababy!" or "Cool! It's the legendary kung-fu actor Tony Leung as Uncle Laborer!"
(NOTE: I might be paraphrasing some of those title cards, but I'm not exaggerating any of them.)
Though I can certainly understand how some moviegoers might be put off by the film's rampant use of CGI text and images, I hoenstly appreciate them. First of all, it reinforces the notion that this movie knows exactly how campy and silly it is. Secondly, the graphics serve as a real-time blow-by-blow commentary of the action scenes, helping us to better understand what's going on in a way that's visually fascinating to watch. In this way, the graphics never take away from the spectacle, but rather add to it.
Finally, the cast introductions make it abundantly clear that as stupid as this movie is, it was not put together by a pack of amateurs. There's a twelfth-generation Tai Chi champion in this cast. There's a girl in this film who's become a noted kung-fu prodigy, and she couldn't have been older than eight. This cast is loaded with world-class martial artists, seasoned action movie veterans, and stuntmen who've become legends in the business. Even Angelababy -- a woman with no prior martial arts experience that I can find -- proves herself to be a bona fide badass in this picture.
And who's the fight choreographer wrangling all of this talent? None other than Sammo Hung, a stuntman/fight choreographer/actor/director who's been involved with so many films over such a length of time that I shouldn't even have to introduce him.
Oh, and did I mention that the film was produced by Jet Li? Well, it was produced by Jet Li.
So, when you've got this much martial arts talent and this much batshit craziness put together into one film, that should lead to some truly incredible and creative fight scenes, right? You'd better fucking believe it!
The fights in this movie are uniformly extraordinary. The Chen style in particular was masterfully presented, delivering a Tai Chi style of fighting that was both impossibly graceful and impressively dangerous. I cannot stress enough just how much talent went into the performance and choreography or these fight scenes, and the end results are indescribably good. It also helps that there's some amount of variety to the fight scenes. Some are one on one, some are battles between armies, and some use food as props and/or weapons. Really, anything goes.
Of course, the fight sequences benefit a great deal from the aforementioned CGI graphics, though the use of speed-ramping helped a lot as well. Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out all the various times when objects fly toward the camera. Having seen this film in 2D, I could only assume that the film was meant to be released and seen in three dimensions. After a bit more research, I've confirmed that the movie was indeed converted in post. I don't really know how to feel about that. Sure, it would make the whole movie look even crazier, but then again, it would make the whole movie look even crazier.
Honestly, I don't know why you even bothered reading my review. You already know whether or not you want to see Tai Chi Zero. Sure, I could go on about the movie's stylized presentation and the overabundance of talent that went into it, but let's be honest: This is a Chinese kung-fu vs. steampunk movie with fight choreography by Sammo Hung. Now look in a mirror and read that sentence out loud.
If you smiled while reading any part of that, do yourself a favor and seek this movie out ASAP. Otherwise, there's no way you'd appreciate this movie's batshit insanity. Don't waste your time.
On a final note, it's worth pointing out that this movie was intended as the first in a trilogy. Indeed, the end credits treat us with a trailer for the sequel, Tai Chi Hero, which was shot simultaneously on a shared budget. The film is set for release early next year, and personally, I can't wait to see it.