|Jayden Yuan as Yang Luchan, a.k.a. "The Freak"|
Luchan is also known as “The Freak” because he has a horn-like growth, known as “Three Blossoms on the Crown,” on his right forehead. When the bump is struck, he turns into a formidable fighter. Unfortunately this also depletes his ch’i (internal energy). Luchan’s birth and early youth play as a silent movie with intertitles. When he’s about eight years old, his mother (Shu Qi) dies. (Although she's old enough for such a role, for some reason I still can't wrap my head around Shu Qi being a mother.) Master Zhao, a leader of the rebels against the Qing (Manchu) emperor, takes in Luchan, but teaches him only about using brute force. Master Dong (1970s kung fu superstar Leung Siu-lung), a healer in Zhao’s camp, advises Luchan that in order to stay alive he must go to Chen village and learn the internal martial art of Tai Chi, developed and taught by the Chen family.
|Tony Leung Chiu Wai as "Uncle Laborer" of the Chen family|
Unfortunately, the Chens don’t teach their Tai Chi to outsiders. Luchan’s efforts to learn this internal martial art are in vain until he receives advice from “Uncle Laborer” (Tony Leung Ka Fai, of DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME, sometimes referred to as “the other Tony Leung” to distinguish him from the better known Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who starred in HERO, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, etc.). Luchan’s learning Chen style Tai Chi is fortunate because the Chen village soon becomes threatened by the construction of the Zhi Li Railway and needs a hero such as Luchan to help save it from both the railroad and the Qing troops that support it.
|T.R.O.Y. No.1, a steam-powered monster that lays railroad track|
The railroad introduces a steampunk element into the comic martial arts mix, which you have to be willing at least to accept. To be frank, this film won’t appeal to all. Hard-core, hard-style kung fu devotees probably won’t find much to like, although they may enjoy the fight choreography by Sammo Hung. Similarly, anyone looking for true Tai Chi Ch’uan may be disappointed, although some postures (such as Parting the Horse’s Mane, and Shoulder Strike) will be recognized.
For my part, I have been a practitioner of a Yang-style Tai Chi form for almost twenty-two years and had no problem enjoying the film. It brought to mind KUNG FU HUSTLE, another comic martial arts film by another “Stephen,” namely Stephen Chow. All the major characters in TAI CHI ZERO are introduced with written Chinese characters and English subtitles (“Angelababy as Yu Niang!”), a device seen in such Hong Kong films as Chang Cheh’s FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS, although those films didn’t employ exclamation points. TAI CHI ZERO also sometimes utilizes x-ray depictions of impact, not dissimilar to those that were seen in ROMEO MUST DIE.
|Single-monikered actress Angelababy as Yu Niang|
The Blu-ray version has a behind the scenes featurette, a music video and a trailer. For some reason, possibly to seem “hip,” these extras generally use a boldfaced “z” in place of an “s,” as in “Behind the Zenes.”
So, if you’re in the mood for some soft-style, internal martial arts steampunked and comically hustled, grab yourself some TAI CHI ZERO. Just be aware that it’s the first of a series of films, as the end credits make clear. The sequel, TAI CHI HERO, came out in Asia in the fall of 2012, and a third and final entry is to follow sometime in the future.
A.C.F. rating for Tai Chi Zero: 3.5 out of 4 stars; highly recommended. It's a helluva lotta fun!
[Note: This review first appeared in slightly different form at 24Framespersecond.]