Tai Chi Zero (2012)
Director: Stephen Fung
Writers: Stephen Fung
Starring: Yuan Xiaochao, Eddie Peng, Angelababy, Shu Qi, Feng Shaofeng, and Tony Leung Ka-Fai

The Plot: Lu Chan “The Freak” (played by Yuan Xiaochao) was born with a “horn” feature on his head that is known in martial art circles as “Three Blossoms on the Crown.” This growth acts as a “button” that, when pushed, instantly makes Lu Chan into a much stronger fighter. After being taken away from his parents as a child, Lu Chan was taught martial arts and eventually joined a rather violent cult of martial artists. Under the rule of this clan he was taught a very brutal and fierce style of martial arts that helped to deplete most of his internal energy. If Lu Chan is to survive, he is told by the local medic that he needs to learn “internal kung fu.” When the rest of his clan are murdered, Lu Chan decides that this is the perfect time to head out on his journey in order to learn this new style of kung fu. When he arrives at a distant mountain village that is well known for its Tai Chi, he finds that no one is willing to help him learn their art. So, being very hard to dissuade, Lu Chan sticks around begging for help. While Lu Chan sleeps on the streets, we see a great deal of drama unfolding within the village. Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) is a young man returning to the place that he considers home. Fang, however, will always be considered an “outsider” within this village due to his ancestry, and thus he was never able to learn the martial arts of this village. Instead, he decided to seek out the wonders of technology! Unbeknownst to the village, or even Fang’s love interest Chen Yunia (Angelababy), Fang is here to try and persuade the villagers to find a new place to live so that his Western friends can direct train tracks right through the village. As one could expect, this plan won’t exactly appease the community within this small village.

The Review
Tai Chi Zero has been getting a considerable amount of press as of recent, both for good and for bad. Numerous viewers have been trumpeting the film as one of the best and most innovative martial arts films to come out of China in years. My good friend Duane over at Rogue Cinema has been a large fan of the project recently, thus I knew I had to give it a look. However, there have been some viewers who have had a differing opinion, and the dubbed over trailer released by Well Go USA earlier this year didn’t make many folks very excited. However, there turned out to be something appealing about the cartoonish visuals and the mix of steam punk martial arts legend. After having finished the movie, I must admit that it is a title that is very mixed on the whole. Despite this, it is a movie that is sincere in its intent to entertain an audience. Taking on the aesthetic values of a video game, Tai Chi Zero is a martial arts film that completely defies all conventions that have come before it. Although it may not be perfect, there is a lot of promise here and a whole lot of fun to be had.

There is an interesting subplot revolving around Western ideas contradicting ancient Eastern ideals. This sort of thing has been touched upon in many older Hong Kong films, most notably the Once Upon a Time in China series, but this is one of the most blatant films that I have seen coming from the current crop of films being made in the country of China. So, after years of percalation on this subject, and now with Chinese filmmakers borrowing liberally from American contemporary cinema, how would one expect the Chinese filmmakers to react to the concept of Westernized science influencing ancient China? Duh, the Western devils always bring evil! This seems all the more bizarre, seeing that the movie borrows so heavily from films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the Worlf and even Wild Wild West in some regards. Still, despite the classically Chinese sensibilities on display (second only to the evil Japanese warrirors who oh so often pop up in Chinese action films), this is a movie that presents a more youthful sensibility. The Western ideals may be shown as being forced upon an unwilling populace, through duplicitous means, but the filmmakers themselves manage to craft a film that is almost explicitly targeted towards younger viewers and even Western audience members.

Much has been made, rightfully of course, about the comic book style found in Tai Chi Zero. In many circles, it has been considered a classic case of style over substance, and indeed that seems like a decent description for the movie, but this overtly stylish direction can certainly be appreciated within the right circumstances. With Tai Chi Zero, there is a lot of “dumb fun” to be had if the audience is willing to go along with the movie. It’s one of the few Chinese films that I have seen in quite a while that doesn’t need two hours to tell its story, and it does its best to try and bring its cartoonish world to life. Indeed, Tai Chi Zero is a combination of Japanese anime and video games as well as traditional wuxia. Featuring segments that look identical to a Capcom fighting game, as well as one impeccable bit where the camera moves into a first-person-perspective that is obviously referencing the first-person-shooter genre, Tai Chi Zero is in love with video game culture. It truly seems as if every scene features some form of post-production thought bubble or cartoonish sidebar that gives levity to the movie. Granted, some of this stuff can be incredibly over-the-top, but hey, it works! The scenes that are supposed to be “cool,” they are. The humor adds a lot to the movie, and this sort of clever postmodern view of martial cinema is something that continually keeps me entertained.

Yuan Xiaochao is a very surprising talent. Despite his affably goofy demeanor, he has a certain amount of charisma that carries the movie. An Olympic Wushu star, Xiaochao steps into his role as if he were an experienced talent. Despite the allstar list of cameos and smaller supporting roles, it is Xiaochao who proves to be the most watchable character within the movie. He has a big future ahead of him, and the fact that he is able to hang in there with Eddie Peng (who plays the villain here in phenomenal fashion) and Tony Leung Ka-fai says a lot about his talent. Yuan’s character, Lu Chan, is probably the most intriguing of all the characters within the film, and the only one who actually touches upon a sincerely moral tone. He is a man of naivete, but it manages to save him from being as selfish and ruthless as those who surround him. In my interpretation of the film, he is a man who approaches a city with the intent of gathering knowledge that will help him survive. However, the people of this village greedily hold onto their knowledge and refuse to help him because of his “outsider” status. In the end, this village seems to have one character who holds to any moral responsibility and he agrees to help Lu Chan, however, when we find out more about him later in the film and it seems that he too is using Lu Chan to sustain the order of the village. In that light, Lu Chan’s character is at first somewhat pathetic, but in actuality he seems to be the only decent one amongst the whole. I’m sure that this story also holds a vague political allegory when reading between the lines, but when it comes to modern Chinese cinema I usually just brush past this.

The Conclusion
Tai Chi Zero has a few knicknack problems within its structure, but they are harmless for the most part. With a lightning quick pace, a simplistic narrative, and lots of fun action sequences that were choreographed by Sammo Hung, this is a movie that will likely develop a solid cult following. With a sequel just around the corner, I can’t help but find myself a little psyched to see how the filmmakers improve upon this film. I give Tai Chi Zero a relatively high four out of five.