Stephen Fung’s “Tai Chi Zero” is a failed attempt to mix up the martial arts movie genre into something new. The movie revolves around Lu Chen (Jayden Yuan) aka “The Freak”, who is born with a little horn on his head, that when pressed makes him go berserk for a minute, becoming extra strong and fast. However, each time it’s used, it makes him weaker, until he dies. He is also born with the uncanny ability to learn kung fu moves just by watching someone else use it. Apparently, he was also born without a brain as well. The easy solution, since his kung fu abilities seem fine anyway, is to not press that little nob on his head so much, or better yet, not at all since he seems to be kicking ass anyway. By the way, this single horn on his head, and this might not be an accident, looks like a penis after a cold dip in a lake. It would be funny if it wasn’t utterly ridiculous. Someone needs more time in the make-up department.
To continue, a doctor points out to the hero that if he wants to live, he needs to go learn an inner form of kung fu – Chen Style Tai Chi from the legendary Chen Village. So dim-witted Lu Chan runs off to Chen Village to learn Tai Chi from people who are forbidden to teach anyone outside their own village. Once there, he meets Yuniang Chen (Angelababy), the daughter of Master Chen Chang Xing (Tony Leung Ka Fai) as well as an assortment of village characters. He also helps save the village from a bad guy who wants to make a train stop there to help with travel to Peking. For a movie trying to break genre boundaries, all the characters are cliches that we have seen before.
On paper, the idea of “steampunk” and period piece martial arts action might be a good idea. Maybe if they left it at that, it may still have worked; however, the problem is that everything else, including the kitchen sink, was then jammed in as well – MMORGP names and energy bars floating over people’s head, some cheaply done anime spliced in for no reason and video game sound effects with screen graphics flashing “K.O!” Not only do these serve no purpose, they are distracting. Also, “steampunk” is a bit more than steam, round spectacles and brown clothing. Apparently, Tim Yip studied da Vinci drawings for inspiration but then watched “Wild Wild West” and “A League of Extraordinary Men” for the actual vehicles and props.
The scattered thinking also kills the story in “Tai Chi Zero.” There is the primary goal of learning Tai Chi, which Lu Chan learns by osmosis. Then a romance between Yuniang Chen, who was planning to marry Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng Yu-Yen) after he comes back from studying abroad with all this new technology. However Fang, wearing an absurd top hat, turns evil after his electricity display to the village elders go awry. He vows to bring the train even if he has to tear the entire village down. For some reason, although Fang grew up in Chen Village, he was treated as an outsider and was never taught the famous Tai Chi. Why? Who knows. Maybe he was an orphan, but this has built up some deep resentment in him. Note, this is bad when the main nemesis does not know how to fight. It makes for a terrible ending. The sub plots keep getting piled on. Fang, realizing that he is outnumbered, calls in reinforcement, who arrives in the form of Claire Heathrow (American-Malaysian Chinese model Mandy Lieu) manning a contraption called Troy No. 1. Fang and Claire are in love, but he wants to make a name for himself before he settles down to marry her. This is just about half of what is going on in this movie, and none of it is thought out.
Performance-wise, the only actor who is believable is the veteran Tony Ka Fa. Everyone else is woefully inadequate. Jayden Yuan is a real life martial arts champion, but he’s no where near ready to play the lead and anchor a movie. Granted, the Lu Chan character is already gimped right out of the gates being written as the village idiot, but Yuan plays him with a single note – a constant perplexed look. This reminds me of the more recent Stephen Chow character in “Kung Fu Hustle”, but that character was believable because he did idiotic stuff as a result of his simple and naive nature. Lu Chan is an actual idiot, which also makes him getting the girl completely implausible because Yuniang Chen is not only beautiful and smart, but her kung fu is so much better. There is no alternative reality, including a steampunk one, where a woman like her falls for a simpleton like Lu Chan.
The action choreography done by Sammo Hung was adequate. It’s not his best work, but you do get the sense that the moves are based on Tai Chi with sweeping arms and lots of momentum redirection. The problem is, there wasn’t enough of it. The Tai Chi in the title of the movie wasn’t given enough screen time.
“Tai Chi Zero” opens in limited release this Friday. Check your local listings.
Stephen Fung (director) / Chen Kuo-Fu (screenplay)
CAST: Yuan Xiaochao … Yang Lu Chan
Angelababy … Chen Yunia
Tony Leung Ka Fai … Master Chen
Eddie Peng … Fang Zijing
Qi Shu Qi Shu … Yang Lu Chan’s Mother