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, growing up, I didn’t much partake in sports regularly, so I don’t always see the fascination with mastering one’s physique in the same way. However, when a martial arts film comes along that has a winning story and actors with some impressive command of their fisticuffs AND the ability to muster a solid screen presence, then I’m usually hooked.
If you’re here reading this modest review for TAI CHI HERO and you’re a bit lost, maybe you haven’t seen the first chapter, TAI CHI ZERO (or TAI CHI 0 as some sites have it listed)? You might want to watch that one before you adventure into this installment, otherwise you’re not going to legitimately appreciate these crazy, zany characters and what they add uniquely to this crazy, zany world.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then this may not be for you! Instead, I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
This sequel to TAI CHI ZERO – actually, it’s part two of a planned trilogy – continues to depict the adventures and misadventures involving the people of Chen Village, masters of Chen-style kung fu – benefits from a stronger thematic story focusing on brotherhood, family, and redemption … and it also benefits from some sharper editing that slowed down small portions of the first film. Working from a story by Kuo-fu Chen, director Sammo Hung serves up another helping for fans of traditional martial arts films as well as their friends and family who get dragged along to the flick not knowing what to expect.
When we last visited Chen Village, the residents nearly fell under the attack orchestrated by Fang Zi Jing (played with suitable menace by Eddie Peng) and a huge, steam-powered tank. Lu Chan (our hero, played by Jayden Yuan) and his budding love interest Yu Niang (Angela Yeung Wing, aka ‘Angelbaby’) were only on the verge of something special, but this time out – in order for the village elders to bless Lu Chan with proper training in their martial arts – Master Chen Chang Xing (the legendary Tony Leung Ka Fei) orders his daughter to properly wed the young misfit in order to eliminate his ‘outsider’ status. While she begrudgingly agrees to the marriage, she also insists that Lu Chan behave as her student (she will be conducting his training) as well as call her ‘master.’ It’s a comedy of manners as the two slowly succumbs to their true affections for one another and discover love, all the while trying to save their small mountain city from Fang’s approaching army!
Like the first film, HERO is bursting at the seams with some amazing fight choreography (most of it is entirely bloodless and fairly family-friendly … so long as you’re okay with little Timmy or Susie watching the kung fu). Also, I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t point out that there’s some stunningly wonderful cinematography captured in here; both the big moments (some stunning vistas) and the smaller (some more intimate close-ups of the players) are handled with great depth and care. If anything, one could make an argument that these TAI CHI films are beautifully packaged by all involved; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this was director Hung’s intent – to deliver a big epic – because it all feels quite deliberate.
Still, I found this one a bit smaller, a bit more intimate than the first visit to this universe, and I think that strongly aided the story. There’s more emphasis on character – the script tinkers almost as elaborately with themes of family and tradition as much as it does machines and gadgets – and, as such, there’s more here for these talented players to work with. Much in the same way that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK added to the mysticism and the mythology of the original STAR WARS, TAI CHI HERO serves up a middle chapter that, no doubt, should have fans clamoring for more.
I know I will be.
TAI CHI HERO is produced by Huayi Brothers & Taihe Film Investment and Diversion Pictures. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through the always reliable Well Go USA. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Chinese language picture with English subtitles; packaging indicates there is an English-dubbing track available, but I didn’t use it. As for the technical specifications, I can’t shout a WOW big enough; this picture looks and sounds incredible from start to finish with increasingly impressive cinematography. (There’s a healthy amount of slow-motion photography, but, given the circumstances of the story and choreography, I didn’t find any of it over-used as can be the case with some films.) Lastly, the disc rounds out the special features with the theatrical trailer and a 60-minute making-of documentary that takes viewers behind-the-scenes with production snippets and short interviews.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Fun, frenetic, and even sometimes frivolous, there’s still much to love about TAI CHI HERO, the second installment in a proposed trilogy dealing when Chen-style kung fu (which gets royally renamed as simply ‘Tai Chi’ this time out). It boasts some terrifically heroic characters for an action comedy; it delivers a visually exciting world that continues to combine elements of traditional Chinese films along with steampunk and anime inspirations; and it puts eye-popping martial arts action up on the silver (or small) screen in a reverential manner befitting the masters and grandmasters who study it. Plus, did I mention it was just good clean fun? (Yeah, I did. Right up front. My bad.)
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with a DVD copy of TAI CHI HERO by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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 … more