Those who’ve followed my reviews over the years (and, yes, there are a good many of you) know just how fond I am of foreign films. Not so much the European releases. While they’ve had some nice flicks, I get much for bang for my buck from the Japanese, Korean and Chinese releases. I tend to find them more relatable in many ways, far more interesting with respect to depiction of their cultural norms and attitudes, and modestly reverential of their national history. Plus – as I’ve said many times – they’re rawer than many similarly-themed American releases because they aren’t bogged down by the politics and shenanigans of the U.S. studio system.
However, some of that’s clearly started to change. In the last few years, I’ve noticed more and more of the pictures coming out of China, in particular, starting to have that ‘big budget’ feel. What tends to happen in films of this sort is that there’s clearly less emphasis on storytelling and increased focus on stories that require bigger and bolder set pieces, finer and more intricate special effects. Sometimes, this increased focus works to the detriment of the picture as a whole, as I think it did with films like DETECTIVE DEE or CONFUCIUS. But when it’s managed properly, the end result is a piece of entertainment the likes of which TAI CHI ZERO represents.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers solely necessary for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers to read a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting to hints of ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Since birth, Yang Lu Chan (played by Yuan Xiaochao) has been plagued by a wart-like growth from the right side of his forehead. What looks like a birth defect is actually a secret weapon that allows him – when it’s tapped – to tap into some deep-seated talent to mimic any martial arts display he’s witnessed. This gift from nature does not come without consequence for, unless he can master the arts of the force inside him, he will die young from the advanced strain on his body. A shaman suggests he travel to the distant Chen Village where, if he can learn the art of Tai Chi, he might just find balance. The problem with that solution is that their villagers refuse to teach any outsiders … but before all is over, Lu Chan will have gained the trust and confidence of Chen Yunia (played by pop star Angelbaby), and he learns there just might be no cure for the troubles which ail him.
Stephen Fung has an impressive resume as a director, actor, and writer, and what he’s well on the way to accomplishing with TAI CHI ZERO (warning: this is only the first part in a planned trilogy, and, yes, it does end on a cliffhanger) is nothing short of amazing. Stylistically, ZERO’s all over the map – is it a comedy? Is it a drama? If it’s a little of both, what are we to take seriously? – but, for the most part, it succeeds despite a heavy emphasis on some questionable use of split-screen storytelling and slow-motion wire-fu sequences that probably add twenty minutes to the film (no kidding). Mostly, that’s because everybody roots for the underdog, and ZERO’s story is full of ‘em. When the story is about a whole town of underdogs, there’s a good foundation to make it all come together.
This is not to say ZERO doesn’t have some narrative ‘hiccups,’ because it does. For example, the first thirty minutes (or so) are punctuated by clever bits of stylish posturing – the audience is treated to a frozen screen highlighting a particular actor or actress, and then there’s a quick, humorous throwaway observation about the actor’s career (and not the character in the film). This is something I’ve seen happen previously in Japanese animes, and, when I’ve seen it, I’ve mostly hated it (even when it was divulging something relevant to the story). Why? First, it pulls me out of the motion picture experience by reminding me that I’m watching an actor, not a character, and that’s a distraction to me personally. Second, it grinds the narrative to a halt in order to deliver some ‘technical moment’ that, quite frankly, has little or nothing to do with the film. I’ve had it explained to me that this is nothing more than a bit of Eastern-style humor; while that may be true, that doesn’t negate the fact that I find it a distraction. Thankfully, this ‘technique’ disappears after setting up most if not all of the main characters, so I’ll let it be.
Still, as the story wears on, it becomes increasingly obvious that Fung and his players are working extremely hard to please its audience. I’d suspect he and they know precisely what they’re doing, and they’ve probably all got a solid grounding in where they’re heading with the trilogy. Whereas this might burden other projects, I thought it became somewhat infectious. They’ve gone to great lengths to pull on an awful lot of influences here – traditional comedy, the triumph of the underdog, weird variations on the basic martial arts film … and that doesn’t even take into account the obvious influence of steampunk heavily at play in one of the most curious contraptions brought to Chinese film! What easily could’ve been a series of clever but inane stumbles are made to work to the picture’s benefit.
So, while it ain’t perfect, I enjoyed TAI CHI ZERO quite a bit, and I’ll definitely stay tuned for its second chapter.
TAI CHI ZERO is produced by Diversion Pictures and Huayi Brothers & Taihe Film Investment. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by Well Go USA Entertainment. As for the technical specs, the film is very accomplished; it looks and sounds fantastic, though (as indicated above) there are a few sequences which heavily remind the audience that its watching a film instead of striving to immerse them in this colorful world. The film has both the original Mandarin language track as well as an English-dubbed track, but I’d encourage viewers who choose the English-dubbed to keep the English-subtitles on as they’re needed especially in the early part of the film. As for special features, there’s a brief obligatory behind-the-scenes featurette (nothing special), a music video, and theatrical trailers.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. From a story standpoint, I have to reserve judgment until I see where TAI CHI HERO (its forthcoming sequel, the second part of a planned trilogy) takes the story, but so far TAI CHI ZERO is a winning combination of character, action, and humor. It’s a delicate balance – one maintained to great accomplishment of all the players, cast and crew – and I’d imagine most folks would be hard pressed to find this nifty little gem nothing short of interesting … so long as they can get through the opening anime-inspired lunacy. Once those somewhat intrusive introductions are out of the way, ZERO is certainly no zero.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA Entertainment provided me with an advance DVD screener of TAI CHI ZERO for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
Please note that “Tai Chi Zero” is the first part of a two-film story directed by Stephen Fung. As such, it is somewhat hard for me to judge where the film is headed or if it does manage to get everything done as per its intentions since I have not seen its second chapter “Tai Chi Hero”. “Tai Chi Zero” is obviously a play on the ‘zero to hero’ plotting with its second film having ‘hero’ in its title. This film is somewhat difficult for … more