Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Film Review - 'Tai Chi Zero'

Taken at face value, there is nothing about Tai Chi Zero that will lead you to believe you are about to watch anything unusual. It's a fairly straight-forward tale about a young hero setting out on a journey to learn the ancient secrets of martial arts, who ultimately ends up proving himself to his teachers by aiding them against a threat. I'm sure that there are any number of stories, in any number of mediums, that could be described in such a way. So, Tai Chi Zero isn't exactly original - but, director Stephen Fung was clearly still determined to make the most of it.

Our hero is Yang Lu Chan, a young man with a strange growth on his head which is, somehow, the source of formidable martial arts power. Whenever that growth is hit, Lu Chan's is turned into a kung fu superman, perfectly capable of turning the tide of a battle single-handed. But, there's a cost, of course - each use of this unique ability leaves him drained and, as he is warned by a kindly doctor early in the film, will eventually kill him. Lu Chan's only hope (other than giving up martial arts entirely, which obviously isn't an option) is to travel to Chen village, where he may be able to learn a secret and forbidden style of martial arts that will help him learn to control his strange ability. But, of course, it isn't going to be that easy for our intrepid hero. When he eventually arrives at Chen village, he finds that the mysterious Master he had hoped to learn from is nowhere to be found - and, that no one else in the village is interested in teaching him. The village has a strict rule against teaching their unique style to outsiders, it seems. Lu Chan's insistence on convincing someone to teach him only seems to lead to him being severely beaten... repeatedly - most often at the hands of Chen Yu Niang, the daughter of the Master he had hoped to learn from.

Not that Lu Chan really seems to mind, though. Chen's unique style of martial arts may put his own skills to shame but, as is pointed out to him by a helpful labourer who (in the proud tradition of martial arts films) may turn out to be more than he appears, Lu Chan's natural talent for martial arts, and his gift for mimicry, gives him a way to learn their style despite their objections.

Chen village has more important problems than an overly persistent young man who wont leave them alone, however. Fang Zi Jing, a former resident of Chen village, has recently returned from three years travelling and studying determined to drag his village into the future, whether they like it or not. First, by outlining his plans to connect the village to the rest of China via a new railway being constructed by his employers then, after they reject his offer and threaten to delay his employers plans, by showing up in the company of foreign soldiers and a steampunk monstrosity, threatening to tear his former home down.

And so, the stage is set for another classic conflict between the forces of tradition and progress. It is a tale which has, admittedly, been told many times before in many different forms - though, I think it would probably be fair to say that it has never been told quite like this, before.

Tai Chi Zero is a wilfully and deliberately strange film, which takes a fairly simple and familiar story and tries to make something unique out of it. It tells a tale based around a real-life historical figure, Yang Lu Chan, but which makes no real claims to historical accuracy (or, at least, I'm fairly certain that there were no steampunk tanks in China during Yang Lu Chan's life-time). The first appearance of each character is met with a freeze-frame introduction of not just the character, but also the actor playing them, and what you might know them from - for no real reason I can think of, other than stylistic choice. There's also the charmingly old-school habit of martial arts masters pausing to announce the name of the move they are about to perform. Then, there's the flash-back to Lu Chan's childhood, which plays out like a black-and-white silent film, and the film's sudden switch into animated segments - both, seemingly, just because they could.

Then, there's the sudden and surprising appearance of video game imagery throughout the film - which, while certainly entertaining, seems entirely out of place. There is the combo-counter, and K.O., that pop up during a fight scene, or the health bar that appears just as a character is about to lose consciousness, and even a list of dialogue options that suddenly appear on screen during what was supposed to be a dramatic conversation. It's strange - and, it brought to mind one of my personal favourite films from the past few years, Scott Pilgrim vs the World. In Scott Pilgrim's bizarre little world, though, the inclusion of video game imagery like this made sense - in Tai Chi Zero, it just felt like another random stylistic choice.

There are also moments of impressive camera-work, here, that range from creative to simply showing off. The way the the film's animated segments flow seamlessly back into live action, for example, is definitely a visually impressive little trick. But, when we find ourselves going on a tour around Chen village, complete with labels placed over each building, by following in the trail of a dragonfly, it does begin to feel a little self-indulgent.

The end result of all of this is of a director who was simply trying too hard - one who insisted on tossing every creative and clever idea he had into his film, while not giving anywhere near enough thought to whether they would actually work. Quite often, the accumulation of all of Stephen Fung's creative flourishes often just seem to get in the way - particularly during some of the film's fight scenes. Honestly, when you are able to get a martial arts legend like Sammo Hung to take care of the fight choreography in your film, it just seems like good direction to stay out of his way.

Thankfully, though, the director's flourishes don't get in the way of the film's cast to quite the same extent. Jayden Yuan is able to make Yang Lu Chan into a likable and enthusiastic hero - even if he is one who is clearly out of his depth. Chen Yu Niang is a legitimately intimidating young woman, in spite of her overall calm demeanour - well played by actress/model/singer Angela Yeung (billed under her stage name, Angelababy). In the 'villain' role, Fang Zi Jing may not be the most threatening figure - but, Eddie Peng is able to make him into an almost sympathetic figure, who clearly feels that he has been forced into a villainous role. All of the actors cast here (which includes more than the film's fair share of martial arts veterans appearing in cameo roles - and, even the director himself) serve the film well. Tai Chi Zero doesn't have any problems on that front, at least.

The end result, here, is a film which could have been much better. As a comedy, it isn't quite as funny as it clearly wanted to be. As an action film, it isn't as exciting as it wanted to be. As a film, in general, it simply isn't as impressive as it could have been. Of course, Tai Chi Zero is only half of the story being told, here. Not only does the film end on a clear cliff-hanger, but we even have a trailer for the sequel playing over the film's closing credits. Honestly, Stephen Fung doesn't lack confidence - I'll give him that.

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