Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Film Review - 'Tai Chi Hero'

Tai Chi Zero was a strange film. A strange blend of martial arts, comedy, and steampunk-style alternate history, given to us by a director unafraid to let his unrestrained imagination play out on the screen. It was far from perfect, sure - but, it was also a lot of fun. With Tai Chi Hero, a direct follow-up released in the same year, it would probably be fair to go in expecting more of the same.

The film picks up shortly after where Tai Chi Zero left off. In order to spare Yang Lu Chan (Jayden Yuan) from punishment for secretly learning the unique martial arts style of Chen village, which is forbidden to be taught to outsiders, Chen Yu Niang (Angelababy), the daughter of the current master of the village, agrees to a marriage of convenience. This allows him to avoid the (extremely unpleasant) punishment that elders of the village had in store for him - though, it doesn't exactly earn him the acceptance he was hoping for. To both the residents of Chen village, Yang Lu Chan is still very much an outsider - and, to his new wife, he is little more than a barely tolerated student. It's an awkward situation for our young hero to find himself in. And, it is only made worse when the eldest son of the Chen family, Zai Yang (Feng Shao Feng), returns - revealing that the true reason for the rule against teaching outsiders is based superstition, and a prophecy that any outsider that learns Chen-style martial arts will bring doom to the village. Master Chen (Tony Leung Ka Fai) is suspicious, though - fearing that his long estranged son is deliberately trying to turn the villagers against Lu Chan for reasons of his own.

But, there's more at stake, here. Fang Zi Jing (Eddie Peng) has returned - using well placed bribes to secure himself a position of even greater authority, and allying himself with Fleming (Peter Stormare), a sinister representative of the East India Trading Company. Zi Jing is determined to have his revenge - and, with the resources he now has at his disposal, he is well-placed to enact his own plans to destroy Chen village.

One thing that will probably become clear fairly early on is just how different this film is. Quite often, the action in Tai Chi Zero was played so over-the-top that it almost seemed like an affectionate parody of the genre. Here, though, we have a film that seems intent on playing it all a little straighter. In moving into the second film, it seems as though director, Stephen Fung, decided that he wanted to tell a slightly more serious story, this time - and, as a result, many of the eccentric stylistic flourishes that occasionally weighed down the previous film were left behind.

This is to the film's benefit in a variety of ways. By stripping away the layers of visual absurdity, Tai Chi Hero is able gain a greater sense of cohesion and focus. It just doesn't feel as messy or as chaotic as the previous film sometimes felt. Also, the change in focus allows for a greater emphasis on moments of character development that the first film often seemed to lack. The growth of genuine affection between Lu Chan and Yu Niang, for example, receives a focus that there simply wouldn't have been room for in Tai Chi Zero - as does the tense relationship between Master Chen and his eldest son, Zai Yang. But, in changing focus in this way, Tai Chi Hero also, unfortunately, seems to have lost some of what made the original so oddly endearing. It's as though the film simply went too far in the opposite direction, this time.

On the plus side, though, this also means that the bizarrely out of place video game imagery that bothered me so much during the first film is also mostly absent. It's not entirely removed, though. One segment of the film, in which Lu Chan goes through a series of fights in quick succession, plays out like someone working their way through the ranks of a fighting game - complete with a boss battle, at the end. But, it's not nearly as intrusive, this time. But, the best part of all of this is that, without Stephen Fung's creative flourishes getting in the way, Sammo Hung's impressive fight choreography is able to play out unhindered - giving us some genuinely entertaining action sequences.

Much like it's predecessor, Tai Chi Hero is also a film which could have been much better. It managed to correct some of the issues I had with the previous film, only to stumble into problems of its own. The film's slower pace, and more coherent structure, allowed for moments of character development that were often brushed aside in the first film. But, as a result, some of the energy and excitement of the previous film was lost - leaving us with a film that just isn't as much fun. If a third film is ever released (which, based on way things wrapped up, seems to be the plan), then hopefully it is able to strike a better balance between the two extremes.

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