I can’t tell you how many Hong Kong period martial arts movies I’ve seen, and I can’t tell you how many of those involves strangers joining a group of good rebels to fight the evil Imperial [insert imperial title here] in a country town. It’s all been done before, so much so that I think films that fit in this category should all go under a sub-genre of its own: The Chinese Rebels Vs. Imperial Tyrant Movie. Woo-ping Yuen’s Tai Chi Master looks as if it’s going to be a movie about Shaolin, but turns out to be yet another Chinese Rebels Vs. Imperial Tyrant Movie — although that in and of itself isn’t a bad thing.
Tai Chi Master stars period martial arts favorite Jet Li as Junbao, a Shaolin monk who, along with his childhood best friend Chin Bo (Siu-hou Chin), are run out of Shaolin after a tournament between Chin Bo and another fellow student goes bad. The duo finds themselves in a town controlled by a cruel eunuch Governor who, in the vein of all Evil Tyrants of filmdom, is taxing his subjects way too much. The duo meets Siu Lin (Michelle Yeoh), who has come to town to look for her runaway husband, before joining up with Miss Li (Fannie Yuen), the leader of a group of rebels fighting the Governor’s tyranny. It isn’t long before Chin Bo’s ambitions come to light and he betrays the rebels, nearly helping the Governor to wipe out the group and Junbao. The stage is set for vengeance — that is, if Junbao can snap out of a mental breakdown to learn Tai Chi and get his revenge!
If there is one thing to look forward to with Tai Chi Master it is the abundance of fights. Director Woo-ping, a notable movie choreographer (who has since gone to do the fights on the Matrix movies), seems keenly aware of his strengths and weaknesses. What passes for story in Tai Chi Master is not really worth going into, since it’s easily gleaned from the synopsis. There really is no other subplot to consider. (Re: this is not a deep movie.)
The real reason to watch Tai Chi Master is its kinetic and chaotic martial arts fights, as rebels, Jet Li, and others take on dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of Imperial soldiers anywhere and everywhere. In fact, the movie is practically wall-to-wall fighting, each one exquisitely choreographed and lasting over 5, sometimes 10, minutes. A movie like Tai Chi Master does not pretend to be more than it is and I appreciated its honesty.
Jet Li is very good as Junbao, the ex-monk who has to learn how to adjust to life on the outside. Li plays a goofy and likeable character that doesn’t quite “get” the inner workings of the outside world. Of course, he quickly warms up to his new environment with the help of Miss Li, Siu Lin, and buddy Chin Bo. Once Chin Bo goes bad, Junbao goes through something of a mental breakdown before discovering Tai Chi. I also have to admit that Tai Chi Master is a funny movie, and it’s funny in a way that doesn’t make me grimace. When I laugh more than I grimace at a Hong Kong movie’s supposedly “comedic” moments, I consider that a very good sign. I’ve always had a lot of problems with what Hong Kong filmmakers consider funny, and thank God Tai Chi Master was actually funny instead of just being awkward.
The rest of Tai Chi Master’s cast does all right, although Michelle Yeoh is grossly underdeveloped, as her character goes from abandoned wife to rebel leader without batting an eyelash. I would assume such a drastic transition would involve more than just a couple of bowls of wine, but I guess not. Siu-hou Chin (Chin Bo) is appropriately cunning when he’s a member of the good guys and equally menacing when he converts to the main bad guy of the piece.
On the other hand, Fannie Yuen’s Miss Li was introduced as an important character, but quickly drops off the map and ceases to become a factor. This is unfortunate, since the movie establishes early on that Li and Chin Bo had a mutual attraction, and I wonder if keeping her around, as a sort of moral “compass” for the wayward Chin Bo might not have been a better idea and given both characters more resonance and credibility. As it stands, Chin Bo’s shift from Shaolin monk to vicious bad guy is not all that believable.
Tai Chi Master is a standard Hong Kong period martial arts movies. It has all the ingredients and all the simple plot points of dozens, maybe hundreds, that have come before it, but the one thing that makes it stand out is its wall-to-wall martial arts clashes and its very funny humor.
In a word, Tai Chi Master is everything you want in a Jet Li period movie, and absolutely nothing else.
Woo-ping Yuen (director) / Kwong Kim Yip (screenplay)
CAST: Jet Li….Junbao
Michelle Yeoh….Siu Lin
Siu-hou Chin….Chin Bo
Fennie Yuen….Miss Li
Cheung-Yan Yuen….Rev. Ling