I like nothing better than a good, epic-like Chinese Kung Fu film that has all of the production value of a Hollywood film. Tai Chi Zero is that kind of movie that harkens to films like Shaolin Soccer (2001) or Kung Fu Hustle (2004), essentially Steven Chow films, that tell a tale of heroics and sacrifice through romance, adventure and comedic wit. Here it’s Stephen Fung the director, who mixes animation with video game design with western film genre elements (as in Wild Wild West the movie (1999)) with Kung Fu genre fixtures most notably characters who fly through the air during fight sequences, to deliver a Chinese mash-up at the movies. The balletic choreography of Kung Fu films can sometimes be too distracting. But if the filmmaker can incorporate those “fantasy-like” moves into a fantasy film then all the better.
The Story: Tai Chi Zero is the kind of matinee film they don’t make any more; the kind you want to see at a theater on a Saturday afternoon. Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) is a young boy born with a horn on his head. The horn is like to the left of center if looking at him straight on. The kid, or The Freak as they call him, is special in the sense that when you hit this horn it sets him off like Pac-Man when Pac-Man eats a power pellet. He’s suddenly supernaturally talented at Kung Fu and can blow away entire armies. Until his blood pressure peaks and blood erupts from him, squirting through his mouth like a small volcano. But with each pounding of the horn he loses a little of himself. Constantly told that if his horn turns black he will die Lu Chan seeks out an alternative form of Kung Fu that won’t cause him harm. Unfortunately, the only village in China that knows the secret, ancient ways of what’s called Chen style Kung Fu won’t teach it to outsiders.
The Goods: There’s a constant theme of insiders versus outsiders through Tai Chi Zero and you get a sense the narrative works inside and outside as we switch from moments of reality to moments of animation. Often throughout the film graphics drop onto the scene like shipping containers dropped from a crane. This is mirrored in the West’s version of the Industrial Revolution (or homage to the Tony Curtis film The Great Race (1965)) that comes to the gates of the simple Chen village, driven, literally, by the film’s antagonist played by Eddie Peng who is in a relationship with one of the village girls, Ni Yunia played by Angelababy. It’s a home coming for her as she wishes to share the inventions of the West, like coffee and electricity, with her village.
Use of graphics on screen is clever, just as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) incorporates those same Kung Fu moves and video game principles. Sometimes design schematics for monster-like steam and gear operated iron machines flash on the screen just as blue-print design is used to lay out Tai Chi moves used by Chen villagers. Steps and stages are also mentioned as one goes through the motions to achieve the highest level of Chen village Kung Fu.
Often big Chinese block font letters drop (why so many falling objects) like anvils announcing a character, location, or real-life celebrity in the film and their claim to notoriety as is the case with a character who won the 2008 Olympic Gold medal in Kung Fu; or another character who won the 2008 Olympic competition for cycling. It’s a dangerous move on the part of director Fung because it can take you out of the film’s story at any given moment.
The sheer number of techniques and volume of trick camera moves, plus the blend of stylistic choices, keep the film chock full o’distractions so much so that one or two non-traditional distractions like pointing out real people within your fictionalized movie is not enough to rival the complexity of camera moves that keep the eye moving and the brain sedated. In other words, taking a risk to disrupt disbelief works because it is equal to the large quantity of bits and pieces being thrown our way. There are one or two characters who starred in famous Chinese movies such as Once Upon a Time in China (1991) and too, like the pop-up bubbles on VHI’s old Pop-Up Videos we learn who and from what movie these actors are and come from.
The Flaws: Unfortunately we don’t get a full sense of closure here because more like the matinees of the American 1930s and 1940s the film is more like a cliffhanger with a conclusion to be seen in the next film, appropriately titled here as Tai Chi Hero.
Disappointing too is a middle section bogged down with a mission impossible style plan, and subsequent implementation of plan, to destroy an iron beast appropriately titled Troy (as in Trojan Horse Troy). The man Ni Yuen arrives with has big plans to build a railroad, and a secret Western lover who demands the destruction of the village. We spend way too much time with this over produced portion of the film obviously created on a soundstage. And a fruity love story between two sets of lovers that is not as fully matured as the melodramatic music leads us to believe.
I wonder also if the population of China has anything to do with over populated the film feels in terms of what tries to do stylistically and movement-wise. It takes many crew members to build sets, paint and construct then light and photograph the armies and machines. Much of the army fighting is computer generated but is it possible to have too many people working on a film? I think so, and I believe Tai Chi Zero suffers because of it.
The Call: Still, you might want to spend the ten if you can find Tai Chi Zero playing near you. The movie is nostalgic in the sense it takes us back to the afternoons of adventures spent at the movies in our youth; it’s a very adventurous, fun movie. Tai Chi Zero has about as many subcategories of the fantasy genre, most particularly musical in its choreography and kinetics, that the movie is almost a form of Kung Fu itself. I was almost exhausted watching it.
Rated PG-13 for martial-arts violence. Running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes but feels like 2 hours. Stunt and fight choreography by Sammo Hung. In Chinese with English subtitles.
Return to: Jon Lamoreaux's Movie Blog Blog