I wasn’t too fond of Stephen Fung’s “Tai Chi Zero” and so I was very reluctant to continue on with this trilogy with his “Tai Chi Hero”. Honestly, I barely even remember the details of “Zero” going into “Hero”. The first two films were released within weeks of each other in China and the final chapter won’t be released until 2014. It does not end with a cliffhanger as with the first movie, but rather it does manage to give some closure to the devices and elements established in the first film. I suppose these first two films were meant to be the set up for the climactic final chapter, but given what I have seen in them, I am not even sure if I want to push through with it.
This film picks up where “Tai Chi Zero” had left off, as young Lu Chan (Jayden Yuan) is set to marry the grandmaster’s daughter, Yu-Niang (Angelbaby); a union pressed on them so that Lu Chan can learn their family’s signature kung-fu. Lu Chan needs to learn kung fu to restore his inner self, which had slowly been burned out because of the “Three Blossoms of the crown”, his horn-shaped birthmark that makes him an ala-Hulk Kung Fu master. Of course, there is tension between the two, as their marriage is birthed out of necessity rather than love. Despite this, Lu Chan begins to learn under the tutelage of Yu-Niang and her father (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) but things becomes a little complicated with the arrival of the Chen family’s eldest son, Zai Yang (William Feng) had returned and Yu-Niang’s childhood sweetheart, Ji-Zing (Eddie Peng) comes forth to bring chaos to the Chen family.
Not really sure how I feel about this film, since it is better than “Zero” and it did show restraint from the things that made the first flick a little too silly and annoying. Yes, the devices that made the first film feel like “Scott Pilgrim” and somewhat kind of Looney Tunes tempo were all still here, but the direction does keep them under control as it focuses on the development of its story. It takes on a more serious tone and the delivery is a little more stable this time around. The film goes forward with its story as it develops the roots of its characters and just how things were set to become. Themes of family, of tradition and progress, of skill vs. technology were brought forth to a common message of acceptance and understanding.
The Chen family secret and superstitions come into exposition, as the viewer learns the reasons why only family members may learn such skill. I did like the way the father-estranged son relationship came through to give the film some needed dramatic flow. The subplot was pretty decent to add some intricacies to its screenplay. William Feng and the always excellent Tony Leung Ka-Fai manages to break ground in developing their relationship, and it also helped to make things a little uneasy that Zai Yang may or may not be in cahoots with the bad guys. Feng performed well as a character with layers, and his mute, martial artist wife (played by Nikki Hsieh) gave his character much needed depth in the script. I know Hsieh was a little too underused, given her splendid screen charisma. I guess I felt that the film would’ve benefited more if it took its focus more on its stronger characters than the ones that should’ve been left in the sidelines.
Not to say that Jayden Yuan was horrible as the lead character, but the problem was, Yuan just could not hit that high note with Angel baby (seriously that’s her screen name). The two struggled to form that chemistry as rivals turned lovers, and they bickered more like brother and sister. I also have some issues with the way the villain was portrayed. Parts of the script did not help Eddie Peng, as he became a little too cartoonish of a bad guy. He comes off rather pathetic as a snot-nosed villain. Yeah, the film pitches a hint for his eventual return for revenge, but I did not care any more.
Now as for the action sequences and set pieces, the film does have its merit. Lu Chan’s training to his encounters with other adept masters come in the form of almost like a montage, but they were a way to quickly express his improvement as a novice to a full-fledged master. I did have an issue with the way that the assault on the village was staged, it felt a little too much on the stylized wirework to really generate any kind of intensity. It was a little sad that the major action set piece ended too early to really make a difference. The action here feels like a video game but I do think that the camera work kind of compensates for what it lacked (but just barely). Once Lu Chan and Yu-Niang goes into the final act, Jayden Yuan faces off with no other than martial arts legend Yuen Biao who plays the prince‘s butler Master Li. Their encounter was more built on more wirework and philosophy as they fight above a kitchen. Sammo Hung’s choreography does pay off but it just did not define what was at stake very well so it wasn’t a rousing encounter that it felt more like an exercise.
Stephen Fung’s “Tai Chi Hero” wasn’t a total loss I suppose; it actually made “Tai Chi Zero” much more tolerable now that I’ve seen where it was headed. It biggest flaw was the way it did not express emotion and it lacked a certain sense of urgency in its narrative. The film felt really built for the superficial audience as it tried so many things that did not work in the first movie. The moves should have that moment that would make my jaw drop, but they all felt rather inferior to its inspiration, “Kung Fu Hustle”. Not sure, for a “zero to hero” story to work, the character has to win over his audience so that they could cheer for him. Lu Chan just did not do that as he did not hit the bottom of the barrel to raise himself back up. The stakes felt a little too mild and there wasn’t anything too personal to make it all work. Given the technology and resources, this movie should’ve been a lot better. The filmmakers did not make a failure, but certainly not a success either. Rent it. [3- Out of 5 Stars]
Unlike many other critics I know and correspond with, I tend to struggle with traditional martial arts movies. It isn’t that I don’t like or I don’t find them particularly entertaining because that’s far from the truth. Rather, I tend to think that my ‘disassociation’ from them thematically is that I just don’t identify with the ‘struggle’ to learn or master a particular fighting style. Maybe that’s because, … more