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“Tai Chi” has unquestionably been one of the more high profile Chinese cinema events of the year, a two part steampunk-martial arts mash up whose trailers promised all manner of over the top madness. 2012 saw the release of the first two parts of what will eventually make an epic trilogy, beginning with “Tai Chi 0″ and followed only a few weeks later by “Tai Chi Hero”, setting the scene for the final instalment, apparently not due until 2014. Shot in 3D (naturally), the zero to hero style series comes courtesy of a powerhouse of commercial film making in genre veteran director Stephen Fung (“House of Fury”), and Taiwanese writer producer Chen Kuo Fu (“Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”, “Aftershock”), with a host of top talent in front of the camera.
Taking place in 19th Century China, “Tai Chi 0″ starts the tale of Lu Chan, also rather unkindly referred to as ‘The Freak’ (played by real life Olympic gold medal-winning wushu champion Yuan Xiaochao), born with a strange horn birthmark on his forehead called ‘Three Blossoms of the Crown’. Although this gives him bursts of demonic power and invincibility when triggered, it also gradually saps his life-force, and so after a spell with the rebellious Divine Truth Cult, he heads to the distant Chen village to try and learn their tai chi and control his energies. Unfortunately, the villagers are sworn not to teach their martial arts to outsiders, and so Lu Chan spends time hanging around trying to convince the oddball Master Chen Changxing (Tony Leung Ka Fai, “Election”) and his feisty daughter Yuliang (Angelababy, “First Time”) to make an exception. He gets a chance to prove himself when western educated Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng, “Love”) returns to the village, now working for the railroad and prepared to raze it to the ground with his giant track laying robot Troy 1.
“Tai Chi 0″ is nothing if nothing not stylish, coming across as a mixture of “Scott Pilgrim” and Stephen Chow’s “Kung Fu Hustle”, being packed out with cartoonish touches and tricks, with martial arts moves illustrated on screen video game style and the action frequently being interrupted by surreal little asides. To a large extent this works well, Fung making good use of the film’s high budget, and it looks slick and impressive throughout, with far better special effects and use of CGI than other recent Chinese blockbusters. On top of this visual overload, Fung also goes one step further by making the film incredibly self-aware, peppering it with pop culture references. Though very fun at times, it has to be said that this doesn’t quite always gel, as even for non-local viewers who don’t pick up on a lot of the gags, their blatant underlining can be a bit distracting, and lessens engagement with the plot and the period setting.
This is especially true when it comes to the announcing of not only the names of actors and actresses and their characters on screen in anime fashion, but in some cases adding in extra bits of information. Given that the film features a long list of big name cameos, including Shu Qi, and Daniel Wu, this can get a bit tiresome, for example in the case of Andrew Lau, who despite only making a brief appearance is highlighted as the director of the “Infernal Affairs” films – it’s a bit baffling at times how Fung thought this would enhance the film. Thankfully, the cast are all likeable enough to overcome this, with Yuan Xiaochao fine in the earnest but dim lead role, Angelababy suitably cute, and Tony Leung Ka Fai predictably stealing pretty much all of his scenes. To his credit, Fung does go out of his way to add some emotional conflict, especially in the case of Eddie Peng’s villainous though v Fang Zijing, and though it only makes things marginally less superficial, it’s still very welcome.
On the plus side this also means that Fung was clearly not taking things too seriously, and the film does benefit from an air of mischievous irreverence, with the feel of an old fashioned piece of Hong Kong kung fu nonsense. Though there isn’t much in the way of out and out comedy, the film is fun, silly and amiable throughout, with some playful set pieces that thanks to the steampunk flavour and robots show a decent amount of creativity. The relatively high action quotient also helps to give things a lift, with some solid fight choreography from Sammo Hung (nominated for a Golden Horse Award for his efforts), and there’s a lot of brawling and duelling to keep the pace moving along at a fairly frantic clip.
Inevitably, “Tai Chi 0” ends frustratingly with a cliff-hanger setup for “Tai Chi Hero”, though this isn’t too much of a criticism, and it stands as a superior and very enjoyable piece of commercial Chinese cinema. While Stephen Fung’s over the top stylings and pop culture references may prove a bit wearying for some, there’s a great deal of boisterous fun to be had here, and the film is certainly above average for its type.
Stephen Fung (director) / Chia-lu Chang, Kuo-fu Chen, Hsiao-tse Cheng (screenplay)
CAST: Yuan Xiaochao … Yang Lu Chan
Angelababy … Chen Yunia
Tony Leung Ka Fai … Master Chen
Eddie Peng … Fang Zijing
Qi Shu … Yang Lu Chan’s Mother
Jade Xu … Sister Mahjong