Tai Chi Zero (2012)

Poster for Tai Chi Zero

“A steampunk kung fu throw down.” That’s what the poster promises, and that’s what this film delivers. And the goods are delivered with a fresh, playful attitude that I found completely winning. Fans of Kung Fu Hustle and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World will probably find something to like in this.

This is the first part of a two-part movie, and the story is somewhat complicated. It starts out focused on Yang Lu Chan a.k.a. “The Freak”, who is a martial arts prodigy working for a mysterious cult. (Well, maybe not mysterious if you know your Qing dynasty Chinese history.) He soon heads off to a remote village to learn the Chen style of internal kung fu that will save him from dying of his own wild powers. Once we reach the village, however, the story branches out to encompass a villager named Fang Ji Zing who wants to bring modern, Western technology to the villagers and thus earn the love of a people that has never accepted him. His fiancee, Yu Niang, is a master of the Chen style who wants her beloved to succeed in his efforts, but then she finds out that he also has a British girlfriend named Claire. That’s the point at which the steampunk landship arrives to destroy the village in order to make way for a railroad.

The film is an interesting mix of old school martial arts tropes and post-modern retro-sci-fi gimmickry. The visual style is very contemporary, with computer-enhanced imagery and motion effects and a choppy editing style, but the action choreography of Sammo Hung is still give its due, with an old school emphasis on named moves and stances. The choppy, flying, elliptical action is punctuated with grounding close-ups of slo-mo footwork or static wrist locks. The Scott Pilgrim dimension comes in with frequent textual or graphic overlays to explain what we’re seeing, or to make jokes about it, or to call out famous actors (Shu Qi! Tony Leung Ka Fai!) or modern day martial arts champions making their entrances. The graphical overlays give a videogame feel to the action, and there’s also a cartoon element, with textual sound effects. In that same vein, there are brief sections of the film that are rendered in straight-up animation.

This post-modern hodgepodge may or may not be your cup of tea, and to be honest the story is not well-structured, at least as a stand-alone film. What surprised me, however, is how well it embodies its conflicted themes of family vs. outsider and tradition vs. modernity in the simple form of a romantic triangle in which the two men represent two different aspects of the Outsider. I’m not going to claim that there’s anything profound going on here, but it gives the goofy videogame action something solid to stand on, particularly when you add the fourth element of the romantic tangle in the foreigner, Claire, who represents the Western drive to transform and overpower China. Can the traditional Chinese way of life withstand the Westernizing forces of modernity? Tune in to the second film, Tai Chi Hero (already in the theaters in China), to find out.

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