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Tai Chi 0
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(left) Jayden Yuan cuts loose, and (right) Angelababy practices her moves in Tai Chi 0.

Tai Chi Zero



Year: 2012  
Director: Stephen Fung Tak-Lun  
  Producer Wang Zhonglei, Chen Kuo-Fu, Zhang Dajun, Stephen Fung Tak-Lun, Daniel Wu
  Writer: Cheng Hsiao-Tse, Chang Chia-Lu, Chen Kuo-Fu
Action: Sammo Hung Kam-Bo  
  Cast: Jayden Yuan, Angelababy, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Eddie Peng Yu-Yan, Shu Qi, Mandy Lieu, Fung Hak-On, Bruce Leung Siu-Lung, Stanley Fung Shui-Fan, Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Wu Di, Chen Sicheng, Xiong Nai-Jin, Xiong Xin-Xin, Shen Si, Stephen Fung Tak-Lun, William Feng, Nikki Hsieh
The Skinny: Agreeable martial arts action-comedy that's let down by A) a reliance on geek media references, B) banal characters and emotions, and C) a cliffhanger that leaves too much to an upcoming sequel. Decent but weightless commercial fluff from director Stephen Fung.
by Kozo:

Score one for the kids with Tai Chi 0. Stephen Fung directs this two-part pastiche of old martial arts stories (sequel Tai Chi Hero arrives a few weeks later) in gleeful 21st century style, delivering an agreeable though middling mishmash of Kung Fu Hustle, Wong Fei-Hong movies and Scott Pilgrim with some steampunk thrown in. Those looking for a simple and unobjectionable commercial film should find much to like, but those looking for more may be disappointed by the film’s weightlessness and cloying eagerness to please. Tai Chi 0 is guilty of excessive postmodernism – i.e., this is a film so targeted towards modern media-saavy audiences that it comes off as aggressively pandering. Basically, this is a movie for those damn kids who won’t get off your lawn, with superficial excellence and none of the depth or emotion that even a film of this genre can achieve. Whether you rate Tai Chi 0 as bad or good may simply depend on how much you want from your movies.

Mainland wushu champ Jayden Yuan stars as Yang Lu Chan a.k.a. “The Freak”, a fictionalized version of a real-life tai chi master, portrayed here as a super-powered simpleton with a horn-shaped birthmark on his head. Called the “Three Blossoms of the Crown”, the birthmark activates Lu Chan’s super kung-fu powers when punched, after which Lu Chan goes Akira and becomes a whirling tornado of mayhem. Unfortunately, the Three Blossoms is burning out Lu Chan’s life force, so Lu Chan seeks out Master Chen Chang-Xing in remote Chen Village to learn the Chen Style of internal kung-fu. The idea is that practicing an internal form of kung-fu will ease the stress on the Three Blossoms, allowing Lu Chan to live a full life of practicing martial arts non-stop because, well, that’s all he wants to do. Once upon a time, Lu Chan’s mom (Shu Qi) told him to do this single thing and that’s just what he’s doing, common sense or self-awareness be damned. Lu Chan is a freak and also kind of an idiot.

Unfortunately, the Chen Village locals don’t want outsiders to learn Chen-style kung-fu and will use violence to keep Lu Chan out of the loop. Leading the way is Master Chen’s daughter Yu Niang (Angelababy), who organizes the villagers into kicking Lu Chan’s ass repeatedly. Lu Chan does find an ally: an old laborer (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) gives Lu Chan occasional pointers while trying to act like he’s not. Meanwhile, Yu Niang’s childhood sweetheart Fang Ji-Zing (Eddie Peng) is stymied in his attempts to introduce Chen Village to modern technology like electricity and the railroad. Ji-Zing has multiple motives: he wants to prove himself to the villagers, who’ve never welcomed him as one of their own, plus he’s been assigned by Zhi Li Railway to arrange for a Chen Village stop. While Lu Chan and the villagers continue their daily tussling, Ji-Zing shows up with Troy No. 1, a massive railroad-laying robot that intends to do its job, even if it has to mow down Chen Village in the process.

Tonally, Tai Chi 0 most resembles Kung Fu Hustle with its mixture of martial arts, cartoonish comedy and modern media swipes. The film takes Kung Fu Hustle’s postmodern blueprint even further by mixing in endless video game references. Like Scott Pilgrim, onscreen graphics are used to explain fighting moves, indicate character emotions or poke self-referential fun. Also, the story is sometimes structured like a video game, with Lu Chan’s goals introduced like game levels, complete with a boss, a stage or setting, and sometimes even health meters. Even exposition resembles gaming, with clear objectives given to the player – er, Lu Chan – who then must complete the objectives to pass the stage and triumph. Factor in the onscreen titles announcing the actors and their real-life cultural significance (e.g., director Andrew Lau is introduced as “Director of the Infernal Affairs films”), and Tai Chi 0 comes off like an overeager export, or a film for inattentive audiences who can’t be bothered to do research.

Not that this type of filmmaking is bad. Tai Chi 0 belongs to a new breed of film, where self-awareness and shout-outs to other genres and mediums are considered hip and cool. Given that, the film is decently successful, though Stephen Fung only skims the surface of his material. Fung is a decent director-for-hire and understands commercial filmmaking well, but the emotions he creates are banal. The film’s moments of revelation or catharsis come off as perfunctory, and this flat feeling occasionally extends to the action. Martial arts sequences from Sammo Hung are well-choreographed but also carry the dull sheen of over-formulation. Action is over-mediated and enhanced via post-production to make it entertainingly slick but also somewhat empty. While Chinese martial arts films are revered for their creativity and their energy, there’s no lively spark to Tai Chi 0’s action. Instead, the action sequences appear overly manufactured, almost like cutscenes from a video game.

The characters also leave something to be desired. Lu Chan is like a shonen manga hero in that his innocent, single-minded devotion to kung-fu is supposed to be entertaining. It sort of is, and Jayden Yuan is fresh-faced enough in the role. Unfortunately, the character lacks that extra endearing level – e.g., the obtuse determination or irreverent charisma that makes Naruto or One Piece characters irresistible. Lu Chan is portrayed so simply that he never becoming compelling or interesting. Angelababy is quite suitable as Yu Niang, who by default is more interesting than Lu Chan because she actually makes decisions. However, one of her actions has a very negative result, and her character never addresses the mistake. The screenwriters do get credit for making Eddie Peng’s Ji-Zing more conflicted than evil, and Tony Leung Ka-Fai’s character is easily the film’s most charismatic and enjoyable. Tai Chi 0 may be for the kids, but it’s the old pro who steals the show.

Tai Chi 0 ends on an unsatisfying cliffhanger, so it may be best to reserve judgement until Tai Chi Hero rolls around. Director Stephen Fung is still too untested to inspire complete confidence, but he does have some strong help. Taiwan filmmaker Chen Kuo-Fu wrote the story and is the film’s producer, and he’s been involved with more solid Chinese commercial cinema than arguably any man in the last 6-7 years, with credits on The Message, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Feng Xiaogang’s films and more. Fung is in the director’s chair but Chen Kuo-Fu may be the straw that stirs this drink – and that offers hope that when all is said and done, the Tai Chi saga can lift itself from just decent to exceptional commercial filmmaking. They’ve still got some work to do – Lu Chan needs a character arc and the whole thing could use some heart – and in Chen Kuo-Fu and Stephen Fung we’ll have to trust. Let’s hope they pull it off. (Kozo, 2012)


• This review is based on the 2D version of the film.

  Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Intercontinental Video (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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