The prospect of reinventing the kung fu genre is no meager undertaking, but few would argue that actor/director Stephen Fung gives it his best shot in Tai Chi 0. An energetic martial-arts romp with a stylish steampunk twist, Tai Chi 0 assaults the viewer with frenetic fight scenes, audacious video-game-inspired graphics, and nearly enough goofball humor to have it qualify as a comedy. It’s an undeniably ambitious start to a proposed Tai Chi trilogy, but it remains to be seen whether it possesses enough momentum to drive two sequels.
Yang Luchan (Olympic gold medalist Yuan Xiaochao) was born with a fleshy protrusion on his forehead. As a result, he was branded the village idiot and ostracized by his cruel neighbors. Encouraged by his mother to train in martial arts, Yang makes the arduous journey to Chen village, a peaceful hamlet populated exclusively by tai chi practitioners. But the locals are wary of sharing their secrets with outsiders, and so when Yang arrives, they challenge him to a series of duels. The worst beating comes at the hands of the gorgeous Yuniang (Angelababy), who pummels Yang mercilessly until an eccentric old man comes to his aid. Little does Yang realize that the old man is in fact the great Master Chen (Tony Leung Kar-fai), a tai chi legend who also happens to be Yuniang's father. Recognizing the warrior buried deep within the defeated pariah, Master Chen keeps his true identity concealed while stealthily giving Yang the tools to realize his true potential. Later, when the nefarious Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) arrives in town on a steam-powered leviathan and announces his intentions to build an unwelcomed railway through Chen village, Yang teams up with Yuniang to demolish the machine, thwart Fang's plans, and unlock the tai chi warrior within.
From the epic opening fight scene peppered with pop-up graphics touting its talented star’s illustrious martial-arts background, it’s readily apparent that Fung isn’t interested in delivering your traditional chop-socky flick. While the director’s rampant use of special effects may not sit well with staunch traditionalists, it does set Tai Chi 0 apart from the pack by creating a playful atmosphere that doesn’t rely on bone-crunching violence to thrill the audience. Yet even considering the steampunk angle that comes into play as the villainous Fang Zijing attempts to build a railroad through Chen village, Tai Chi 0 doesn’t quite summon the inspiration or innovation of something like Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle. That comparison aside, Xiaochao possesses a unique charisma that makes us want to cheer him on as he fights to transcend his underdog status and -- speaking of fighting -- his moves are definitely a major draw of the film. After taking multiple beatings like a true champ early on, it’s a blast to watch him bounce back with a vengeance as the threat to Chen village grows. The rest of the cast, including a pint-size girl who packs a powerhouse punch, are equally effective -- especially during a hilarious sequence in which virtually everyone in the village beats our hapless hero to a pulp.
But when you take as many risks as Fung does, you’re certainly not going to please everyone. The stylistic choices he makes are bound to earn him accusations of favoring style over substance, and the fact that there’s plenty more story to tell (as evidenced by the trailer for Tai Chi Hero that’s included in the credits), may not sit well with those who prefer their films to be tidily wrapped up by the time the credits roll. But in an era when it seems like every ambitious movie yearns to be stretched out into a trilogy, Tai Chi 0 does the job of delivering a satisfying origin story while promising even greater adventures to come. With all of the energy, excitement, and style that the picture has to offer, odds are only the grumpiest of detractors will be able to resist the fun that Fung and company promise in the next two installments. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan