It's one of the strangest films I've ever seen, but Tai Chi Zero is also without a doubt one of the absolute best. Director Stephen Fung and action master Sammo Hung give us the story of Lu Chan Yang (Yuan Xiaochao), a kung fu prodigy from birth who is slowly being killed by the art he practices. Desperate to save his life and wanting to fulfill the dying wishes of his mother, Lu Chan makes his way to the remote Chen Village to learn a new style that will re-alter his energy flow and keep his own power from destroying him.
The pacing of the flick is beyond odd. The pre-title sequence alone takes 15 minutes as Lu Chan's past is replayed in silent film style. Fung mixes humor and tragedy masterfully by first having Lu Chan as a baby fired from the birth canal like a bullet through multiple walls, but within minutes shows the young boy mourning his mother who was beaten to death by his father for stealing.
With nary a breath, Lu Chan is the secret weapon of an army, able to defeat whole platoons bare-handed. This causes him to faint, and the army doctor (Played by Leung Siu-Lung of Kung Fu Hustle fame) tells him of the Chen style he briefly studied that can cure him. An attack leaves the army dead, and Lu Chan searches for the village.
All this happens even before the titles roles in a sudden shift to a beautifully animated sequence detailing Lu Chan's journey. Honestly, the sequence alone was so powerful, set to a theme song that I swear is a slightly tweaked version of the Legend of Zelda theme, that I re-watched it a dozen times.
Tai Chi Zero follows the regular kung fu movie tropes for much of the 90 minute running length. Lu Chan wants to learn kung fu, he is denied, he manages to learn anyway through constantly getting beat up and advice from a mysterious old man who is obviously the Grandmaster in disguise, and a bonk on the head causes him to fall in love with the Grandmaster's daughter Yu Niang (Angelababy). These are great moments and comfortable beats that have all the earmarks of a good old fashioned martial arts film fun, but they aren't what sets the film completely apart.
Fang Zijing was born in Chen Village, but an outsider's last name kept him from learning the village's legendary martial art. Instead, he studied engineering abroad in England and returns to the village bearing all the brilliance of the steampunk age. He brings electric lights, phonographs, all manners of beautiful electric and clockwork devices, but a short circuit results in a fire that makes him once again a laughing stock.
Undaunted, he returns with an order from the governor that Chen Village will be demolished in order to construct a railway. He is aided in this by a monstrous mechanized tank and rail layer called the Troy No. 1. Co-piloted by his English paramour (Mandy Lieu in a pirate outfit that makes Elizabeth Swann look second rate), the tank is a massive creation that is all but indestructible and bears two giant destruction-technology arms.
Zijing's arrival is where Tai Chi Zero really sets itself apart from any other kung fu movie I've ever seen. It's not just that his English gentleman attire distinguishes him so sharply from the rest of the characters, it's the commentary on Western expansionism that he brings with him. Troy No. 1 stands as the incredible symbol to imperialism, and he as China's Judas. It's a corny premise, but it allows there to be this unforgettable setting in which Lu Chan and Yu Niang can wage battle against the loss of tradition and the juggernaut of progress.
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Overall, Tai Chi Zero is the sort of thing that could have come off very badly, but manages to find itself firmly in the moment when the past is challenged by the future. The inherent flamboyance and unbelievable nature of steampunk itself manages to easily interweave with the superhuman abilities of the Chen practitioners. Whereas steampunk is generally all about style, it is interesting to watch that elegance become brutish against a more rural sensibility.
This shows the most when Lu Chan takes on a Troy No. 1 mechanic, a hulking, pale hairy man that looks especially inhuman and monstrous next to the lithe Yuan Xiaochao. It's not one of the great Big White Guy vs. Little Asia Guy cinematic battles. Certainly not the masterpiece that was Jet Li fighting Nathan Jones in Fearless, but as they batter each other through the engine room it just seems to sum up the entirety of the film.
Change does come, Lu Chan is proof of that. He as an outsider attempting to be accepted into Chen style is the avatar of self-determination and a symbol of changing times. Ultimately, the secluded village is forced to embrace him, as the will certainly be forced to progress with the rest of China in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. The question is on whose terms will the change be realized?
Tai Chi Zero is playing at Edwards Grand Palace and AMC Studio 30