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For anyone who hasn’t seen “Tai Chi 0”, there are spoilers in the following review.
Stephen Fung’s steampunk-martial arts epic “Tai Chi” continues with “Tai Chi Hero”, released hot on the heels of “Tai Chi 0”, with the third instalment apparently not due until 2014. Again directed by Fung and written and produced by Chen Kuo Fu (“Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”, “Aftershock”), the film was shot in 3D back to back with the first outing, and continues the tale of Lu Chan (aka ‘The Freak’) as he tries to learn the Chen village Tai Chi and control his explosive inner strength. All of the original cast return, with real life Olympic gold medal-winning wushu champion Yuan Xiaochao, Angelababy (“First Time”), Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng, “Love”) and veteran favourite (Tony Leung Ka Fai, “Election”) again headlining, joined by newcomers William Feng (“Painted Skin: The Resurrection”), Nikki Hsieh (“One Day”) and noted Swedish and Hollywood character actor Peter Stormare (“Fargo”), naturally on hand in a villainous role.
The film picks up where “Tai Chi 0” left off, with Yuliang (Angelababy) set to marry Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) to make him a Chen villager and allow him to learn the local Tai Chi. Their wedding day sees the arrival of an unexpected visitor, her elder brother Zaiyang (William Feng), who turns up with his wife Yun’er (Nikki Hsieh) after having been exiled by their father Master Chen (Tony Leung Ka Fai) years back. Unfortunately, his arrival also heralds the beginning of a series of strange events, which are linked on an old legend stating that outsiders should never be taught the Chen martial arts. Lu Chan is blamed, though has another chance to prove his worth when Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) returns with an army behind him, determined to take his revenge by destroying the village.
Although a direct continuation rather than a sequel, “Tai Chi Hero” is a slightly different film, mainly since it sees Stephen Fung ditching a lot of the video game, “Scott Pilgrim” style cartoonery and pop culture references. This is definitely a good thing, helping to keep things focused on the story, and aside from a daft, throwaway sequence in which Lu Chan enters into a series of boss fights, the film is much more grounded, suggesting a slight maturing which fits well with its hero’s journey arc. Although it might have been expected that Fung would have treated the first film as more of a training exercise, only to unleash more craziness here, there’s still a fair amount of character development, mainly in terms of trying to add a little emotion through the shifting relationship between Lu Chan and Yuliang. Though this works reasonably well and the two stars perform solidly, their pairing never really engages, and it’s William Feng’s Zaiyang who emerges as the most interesting and multi-layered figure, ambiguous, conflicted, and surprisingly sympathetic.
This having been said, there is more action this time around, Fung upping the pace and notching things up in terms of scale and spectacle, in particular during the third act. This comes mainly in the form of a couple of massive, very impressive set pieces and mass battles, which like the first film show excellent use of special effects and a fair amount of wild creativity. Sammo Hung’s fight choreography is again very respectable, seen most notably in a superb duel between Yuan Xiaochao and Yuen Biao that arguably stands out at the best and most exciting sequence of the two films.
The film’s only real problem comes with its ending, with the last act seeming to be setting itself up for further excitement, only to rush things through in a strangely perfunctory manner, Fung abruptly tying up all the loose ends save one without much thought. Though on the plus side this does avoid another cliff-hanger finale, it’s somewhat unsatisfying, and while it does leave the door open for what could potentially be a fine concluding part to the trilogy, the fact that a third film may not arrive for some time runs the risk that audiences may have forgotten Lu Chan and friends by then.
Still, despite a lingering feeling that Stephen Fung may not quite have fully delivered on the grand promise of their ambitious premise, the “Tai Chi” films do stand out as amongst the better and more enjoyable big budget Chinese blockbusters of the last year. Although the two are definitely best viewed back to back, “Tai Chi Hero” is arguably a more rounded film than is predecessor, and delivers more than enough action and imagination to entertain.
Stephen Fung (director) / Kuo-fu Chen (screenplay)
CAST: Yuan Xiaochao … Yang Lu Chan
Qi Shu … Mother Yang
Tony Leung Ka Fai … Master Chen Chang Xing
Angelababy … Chen Yu Niang
Eddie Peng … Fang Zi Jing
Daniel Wu … Yang Lu Chan
Stephen Fung … Nan
Peter Stormare … Duke Fleming