Title: Tai Chi Hero
Written By: Directed by Stephen Fung
Publication Info: Produced by Kuo-fu Chen 2012
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Way back in the day, I reviewed Tai Chi Zero, the steampunk Kung Fu romantic comedy.
It featured fighting tofu vendors, giant steampunk pagodas of doom, and a romantic quadrangle. For months we’ve all been waiting for the sequel, and it is FINALLY out on DVD!
So, how is it? Hmmm…it’s still wacky (bamboo fighting gliders are cool) and it still has tons of action, but it’s a very different movie. It’s more character-based and thoughtful. I appreciate this approach, but to be honest the movie felt really long and disjointed. It’s still good, and I appreciate that it’s more ambitious than Tai Chi Zero, but it doesn’t hold together very well as a well-paced, cohesive movie.
The story picks up right where Tai Chi Zero left off, so yes, you do have to see Tai Chi Zero first. Although there’s a whole section explaining what happened in Tai Chi Zero – so maybe I’m just prejudiced in Tai Chi Zero’s favor. It has a steampunk pagoda tank with claws, people! You can’t miss that!
Lu Chan is still trying to learn Chen style Kung Fu, so he can move from ‘zero’ to ‘hero’ (see what they did there?) Chen Yu Niang married Lu Chan to save his life. She is played by an awesome actress with the improbable stagename of Angelababy. Henceforth her character will be known as Angelababy because I never get tired of typing that. Anyway, Angelababy agrees to teach Kung Fu to Lu Chan, but she insists on being his master, not his true wife. But Lu Chan has to win Angelababy’s heart because her love will save him from his terrible illness (it’s a whole Kung Fu mystical thing). So they have this great romance with some very sexy Kung Fu practice and lots of romantic tension, although frankly Angelababy has to bring all the tension herself because the actor who plays Lu Chan is good at looking confused and not much else. Luckily Angelababy is perfectly capable of carrying an entire movie by herself. So – great romance there, thanks to beautiful cinematography, a nifty set up, and Angelababy’s expressive face and her lip-gloss of power.
But the romance/training/mystical illness is not the only plot element! Oh no! There at least two other major plot threads, each of which really need their own movie (which is the crux of the problem with Tai Chi Hero – too many plots, not enough time). Let’s start with the plot thread involving Fang Ji Zing, the villain from the last movie. He wants revenge because the village made fun of him in his youth for being an outsider, then destroyed his plan to bring a railroad through town, then in the whole railroad battle his true love was killed, and he still has horrible injuries from the village fight. So he’s pissed and looking for revenge. He wanted so badly to be accepted by somebody, but he doesn’t get respect from his village because he wasn’t born there, and he doesn’t get respect from the East India Company because he is Chinese and also because he fails at every single thing he’s supposed to do. He is a ball of incompetent rage and depression, but he does have clockwork tanks on his side, and you can’t discount the cool factor of clockwork tanks.
The remaining major plot line is about Angelababy’s long lost brother, Chen Zai Yang. Zai Yang’s story is interesting because it adds more nuance to the first movie’s depiction of tradition being good and technology being bad. Zai Yang and Angelababy are the children of the village’s grand master. Everyone in the family is great at Kung Fu, but Zai Yang doesn’t like to study Kung Fu because he would rather make mechanical things. When he makes a mechanical device that helps him with his Kung Fu, instead of having a typical western response of “Wow! Shiny!” the village regards it as cheating, and Zai Yang leaves the village. He returns with a secret mission from Ji Zing. If he can discredit his father, then Ji Zing will give him money for his machines. So there are gadgets and daddy issues at play here, and a surprising amount of emotional depth and acknowledgment that maybe village life is not as idyllic as it’s cracked up to be, especially if you are different. This came up in Tai Chi Zero, which was pretty sympathetic in its view of Ji Zing, but it’s more explicit in Zai Yang’s story.
SO. There are the basic ingredients. Just like Tai Chi Zero, you should make your decision about whether or not to watch the movie based on whether or not the phrase “steampunk Kung Fu romance” makes you pee your pants with glee. There are some great fight sequences including three people vs. army and two people fighting above a kitchen, where food is a metaphor for the action taking place above. There are interesting characters that have actual layers and that change and grow I more or less plausible ways. There’s a full resolution of the story. Supposedly there’s going to be a third movie, Tai Chi Summit, but I can’t imagine what it would be about, because all the story threads wrapped up quite neatly in Tai Chi Hero. There’s gorgeous cinematography. This is very much a movie about making peace with inner turmoil, and many of the scenes take place outdoors, in lushly shot surroundings. And there’s a bamboo steampunk glider – did I mention that? It’s very nifty!
So why aren’t I giving this movie a higher grade? Well, it has a couple of problems. Tai Chi Zero was a less ambitious movie and I’m tempted to say a movie of lesser quality, because I think things like character and nuanced themes and cinematography should be celebrated. But I had more fun watching Tai Chi Zero. It basically functioned by throwing cool stuff at the screen, but it got away with it because the cool stuff was just so cool. I didn’t squeak with joy as many times watching Tai Chi Hero, although I did have more to think about. There’s something seriously off with the pacing as well. I kept thinking the movie was over, and then it wasn’t. It was too rushed at too slow at the smae time, an impressive feat indeed.
And to my absolute rage, as soon as Angelababy and Lu Chan consummate their marriage, she becomes a supporting character. Noooooo! If they had had more time in the movie to explore the marriage, it might have worked, because she was always bossy towards Lu Chan, and as his character develops she respects him more. As his wife, she grows to love and respect him as a person, and as his master, she is pleased that he has mastered what she was trying to teach him. Logically, they should emerge as equals, with her giving him more opportunities to stretch his wings as a new fighter and leader. But what actually comes through is that they have off screen sex and she shuts up. RAGE.
The truth is, either you want to see a steampunk Kung Fu romance with a bamboo hang glider of doom or you don’t. If you do, I think you’ll like this movie. I think you’ll be more emotionally invested in the characters than in Tai Chi Zero, but less prone to screams of delight. I think you will enjoy the romance right up until it is consummated at which time poor Angelababy becomes a supporting character instead of a kick ass leader. Luckily, this happens near the end. This is hardly a masterpiece of filmmaking, but it has a lot of great elements that deserve to be seen. The B grade come largely on the strength of the glider, the nuanced performances and themes, and the kitchen fight, which is stunning. The minus is for pacing and making Anglebaby take a back seat towards the very end.
And here's an alternate in case that doesn't play for you: