Everybody was kung fu fighting
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 19, 2012
A martial-arts adventure with more video-game and comic-book DNA than the traditional kung fu flick, “Tai Chi Zero” is good, if empty-headed, fun.
Set during the Qing Dynasty, and backed with a propulsive rock score, the story tells of Lu Chan (Jayden Yuan), a young kung fu prodigy whose skills are activated when a bump on his forehead, known as “three blossoms on the crown,” is smacked. Tap the kid on the noggin, and he turns into a punching, kicking, whirling, flipping Tasmanian devil, known as the “Freak.”
There’s only a couple of problems. Every time Lu Chan uses this strange power, it weakens him. So he’s sent away to learn to harness his inner strength through tai chi (which here resembles nothing like the slow-motion exercises you see modern tai chi practitioners doing in the park). The other problem is that the people of the village where tai chi originated hope to keep their secret techniques in the family, so to speak. No one will teach them to Lu Chan.
Fortunately, our hero is a quick study. Whenever the villagers try to chase him off by beating him up -- which is often -- he simply apes their moves.
Complicating matters is the arrival of Fang (Eddie Peng Yu-Yen) a former villager returning home as the representative of a Western company that wants to build a railroad through the small hamlet, against the villagers’ wishes. There’s also a love triangle: Fang used to be sweet on Yuniang (Angelababy), the daughter of the village’s tai chi master (and no slouch herself as a fighter), but now he’s with Claire (Mandy Lieu), an English-speaking employee of the railroad.
Neither of these plot lines is treated with anything more than cartoonish superficiality. The love story is almost absurdly unmoving. The threat of the railroad, however, is brought to vivid life by art director Tim Yip. Yip’s steampunk-y aesthetic renders the encroaching locomotive, Troy, as a belching behemoth of iron, with giant claws and shovels that smash everything in its path.
Inspired in roughly equal measure by Leonardo da Vinci’s tank designs, “War of the Worlds’” tripods, Miyazaki’s visualization of “Howl’s Moving Castle” and the look of the Industrial Revolution as filtered through the fevered imagination of a 13-year-old videogamer, the machine is actually kind of cool, in a ridiculous way.
“Tai Chi Zero” knows its audience, and it’s not a wide one. The film, which boasts fights choreographed by action-movie veteran Sammo Hung, also features cameos by such notables from the world of Hong Kong cinema as director Andrew Lau Wai Keung of “Infernal Affairs” fame.
Never heard of him? Then “Tai Chi Zero” -- the first of a projected trilogy -- isn’t for you.
Contains martial arts action and violence. In Mandarin and some English with English subtitles.