Touted as one of the most anticipated Chinese movie blockbusters of the year, actor-director Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi Zero is a revisionist take of a classic martial-art movie with a steampunk twist. More than this, it’s also about as good a morality play as one could ask for, because it plays and tools and makes very serious questions about what is moral, or what isn’t, or what is so ambiguous that it’s all up to the toss of a coin or a chance ride out of town. There are a few interpretations to Chen’s character Yang Lu Chan that could be taken, but one thing is certain- he’s less a symbol than a real presence. You’ll never look at a crate of oranges the same way again. Or an box cutter. Or fixing a bite wound in a leg. Or a hunt at an inn. Or even the aftermath of a zeppelin crash. But at the same time it’s the purest time of cinema, recalling Hitchcock and Leone and Welles’s Touch of Evil and the best of noir and horrors. There are so many exceptional shots and lighting, so much depth to the perception of the characters through the mis-en-scene, so much tension, that through this it’s all up to the actors to make or break the near-perfection that is the Chi source.
Perhaps this is due to Tai Chi Zero being a prequel that sets up a main story and conflict which will only be seen in later movies– despite a lengthy introduction of the protagonist’s story arc early on, Tai Chi Zero is really about how the old master Chen and his daughter deal with the forced relocation of their village. And fortunately, veteran actor Tony Leung easily carried off the central drama of film as the old master Chen, while the newcomers simply played up their kung-fu movie stereotypes. Technical credits are overall adequate at best, while Sammo Hung’s action choreography is surprisingly average. The martial arts scene, which combined wire-work and slow-motion, are all empty style but little substance. It’s especially a shame that Jayden Yuan is given little chance to strut his stuff here.
Overall it seems like all the ingredients were there for success, but the writing just wasn’t up to par for a really engaging storyline. It was hard to feel emotional attachment to many of the characters because little time was spent developing them and building a bond with the audience. It all felt rushed leaving the actors and director little to work with substance wise. I still recommend seeing the film because it is a fun ride. The story centers on the Chen village where Chen style Tai Chi originates and, historically correct, outsiders from the Chen family were forbidden to learn. The hero travels there and gets his butt kicked around a bit, then the evil British foreigners come to build a railroad and he helps defend the village. The end comes abruptly but really leaves you wanting to see the sequel, which is a good thing.
Barely five minutes into the movie, you get the distinct sense that Fung is trying too hard. While we’re not objecting to Fung’s choice for a playful and inventive take on the kung-fu genre, he would do well to pay heed to the oft-told martial arts adage – restraint, and not excess, is what ultimately makes one potent. he fight sequences, romance (both varieties), music all were well so well mixed in the film that it was like a nice giant cocktail. If you are a fan of movies where you can not decide which genre it belongs to then you should just not miss it. But, take caution to my ultimate warning which I have repeated over and over again, The movie then ends abruptly, either living viewers unsatisfied or glad the movie ended.