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 me to describe, but in a nutshell, it is a martial arts comedy that is decent but carries no power or impact due to its highly commercial fluff. It had made me shake my head quite a few number of times because it is just the kind of movie guilty of excessive novelty.
The film is about a fictionalized version of a real kung fu master. Lu Chan a.k.a. “The freak” (played by real-life Wu Shu champ Jayden Yuan) is portrayed as a mega-powered simpleton with a horn-shaped birthmark on his head. This birthmark is called the “three blossoms of the crown” and when hit, it activates Lu Chan’s dormant super-Kung Fu abilities. However, the birthmark also eats away at Lu Chan’s life force which will eventually cause his demise. So, at the behest of Dong Ye, Lu Chan is sent to travel to a remote village to learn the Chen style of internal kung fu. Learning such a style would ease the birthmark’s ill effects on Lu Chan and he can use kung fu as much as he wanted; his mother (Shu Qui) seemed to have gotten it into his head so bad that this is all he wants to do now. To his bad luck, none of the villagers want outsiders to learn their kung fu and led by Master Chen’s daughter, Niang (Angelbaby), they would use violence if necessary to repel Chan’s ambitions. His efforts do win him one sympathizer (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) who would teach Lu Chan some moves and make it seem like he isn’t. But things are about to get out of hand, as Niang’s childhood sweetheart, Ji-Zing Fang (Eddie Peng) schemes to try to win over the villagers, even if it means destroying the village once and for all.
I guess while the film wants to be the brilliant “Kung Fu Hustle”, the fun “Shaolin Soccer”, channels the Wong Fei Hung movies, anime steam punk and manga, which then puts in some “Arahan” amid some “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World” kind of deal, it comes out as somewhat of a huge letdown. I know there is something creative and intelligent lurking around in this movie, but its over reliance on geek media references, hollow characters and the lack of dramatic flair just makes the film nothing more than a passable diversion for those looking for some stylish, simple martial arts film and will end up disappointing the true fans of the genre.
The film just has a lot of things going on and instead of getting busy defining the characters, mysticism and the depths of its drama in the plot that becomes buried underneath all the video game shout outs, rock and roll, comic book labeling and superficial tempo. The structure of the film plays mostly like a video game and a comic book. It has a lot of graphic effects to describe the moves much like a fighting game, and to indicate what a character is ‘feeling’ as for referential fun. Lu Chan’s goals are set much like the bosses of a video game and is ‘labeled’ as such, it even has the occasional health meters with objectives of the player (in this case Lu Chan) verbosely defined. What I found weird and a little too much is the way that it introduces certain characters as it to poke major fun, such as Andrew Lau is introduced as the director of “Infernal Affairs”. Ok, perhaps I did not get it, but I found that the style and the tone of the film is a little too unrelenting in what it seeks to throw out as ’cool’ and funny, it comes off as overbearing and idiotic.
I am all for stylistic touches, I mean, I loved “Kung Fu Hustle” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” because their style and media references never drove their story, and what those touches were, remained just that….touches. “Tai Chi Zero” allows its bombastic nature of shouting out references to other genres to become its driving force in momentum. To like this film, one has to be able to accept that what they are watching is so hip and cool that to hell with emotions and plot development. This kind of filmmaking can be impressive and creative when wielded by a skilled director. Stephen Fung is one dude who is savvy with all the commercial mumbo-jumbo and so if you judge his creation from this mumbo-jumbo, then the film can be seen as decent and even successful. The way the plot moved all went around perfunctory and unimaginative elements, and this renders whatever creativity it may have reached flat and insubstantial. The action direction by the legendary Sammo Hung were well-executed but in the end, they become a display of more meaningless stylistic touches that they become empty and boring. The lack of definition and drama renders the action to feel very manufactured as one would see in a video game.
Those familiar with the shonen characters in manga would see their similarities to Lu Chan. Played by Jayden Yuan, the character was supposed to be one of those ones whose devotion to one goal should be cause for entertainment. Jayden does fit the bill, but the character he plays lacked it took to reach a level of endearment and an area of interest to drive its plotting. The subplot between Niang and Fang presents an area of conflict within them, and gives Fang a little more layer as someone misled and not truly evil. Tony Leung Ka-Fai is the one thing who manages to save the show. His antics and charisma in his role just gave the movie some needed positive points. The CGI effects had that sort of style behind them that gave them this quirky look; the machinery effects and the set designs were good for this kind of movie. I also found it as a creative touch as Lu Chan's background comes out in the form of some sort of silent film montage (shout out to "The Artist" maybe?) and the animated sequence gave it some personality. So there is something nice here.
“Tai Chi Zero” is the kind of movie that ends in a cliffhanger. I mean, I don’t mind such things ending abruptly and unfinished, but with such an already shallow execution whose depth lies in more media references and shout outs, this is a huge downer. Ok, I have to reserve judgment until I get to see “Tai Chi Hero” and hopefully this does go somewhere. Writer Chen Kuo-Fu plotted this film, whose resume includes “TheMessage” and “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”, so maybe, this messy exercise in commercial references is going somewhere. Stephen Fung has a lot of things to correct if he wants to pull this out of the fire; he needs to add a lot more heart in its characters, put in some legitimate emotions and hold back on the 'geek-media' references with "Tai Chi Hero". Then, maybe this Tai Chi saga of dual movies can still be salvaged and become decent and maybe even good. Right now, it stands as a movie aimed for those who prefer superficial style and pop culture crap over story and character.
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 … more