Title: Tai Chi Zero
Written By: Director: Stephen Fung
Publication Info: Producers: Huayi Brothers & Taihe Film Investment 2012
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
You could assume (I did) that once you are dealing with a synopsis that involves a “tai chi, kung fu, steampunk romantic comedy with self-aware comedic elements of videogame and comic book imagery” you are really beyond categories like “good movie” and “bad movie”. Certainly if that plot description doesn't make you pee your pants with joy and excitement then I'm not sure you're going to get much out of Tai Chi Zero.
On the other hand, I really think this is a genuinely good movie – it reveled in its craziness, it was funny as hell, the one on one fights were great to watch, and I cared about the characters. Everyone had motivations and everyone had an actual personality. This wasn't an “it's so bad it's good” movie; this was just good, in a crazy, over the top, cost one dollar to make, meta kind of way. This is going to be a long and epic review because I just have to tell you all about the plot, because it is so batshit crazy. So if you WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS STOP HERE. Here goes:
The movie starts in 19th Century China, and two armies are fighting, but one guy is just standing around looking at ants, and then he springs into kung fu action with a weird demon face, and then he passes out. At this point there's a flashback that explains how the kung fu guy became a soldier. This flashback was done in silent movie style, because, why not? During this flashback it's revealed that the kung fu guy is named Luchan and he was born with a small horn growing out of his forehead. If he is punched in the horn, he has berserker-fighting skills until he passes out. His mother's dying words to him (yep, she dies, in the snow, it's very sad) are that he must learn to do this one thing (kung fu) well. Then we are back to kung fu guy as an adult in the army and the army doctor tells him that he has learned the wrong style of kung fu. If he keeps practicing kung fu he will die, and he will know his time is up or nearly up when his horn turns black. I'm not making this up. He must go to Chen Village to learn, I'm not kidding, “internal kung fu”. I thought this was hilarious but this morning I googled “internal kung fu” and it turns out that it's a real thing. Apparently it is a legitimate fighting style that does not involve staring at your opponent and saying, “I'm internally visualizing kicking your ass right now”. I apologize for having inadvertently offended any practitioners of this martial art by shrieking with laughter the moment it was mentioned in the script. Anyway, the army is attacked again and there are flames and arrows and stuff and Luchan heads off to Chen Village where the story really starts.
Luchan gets to Chen Village but no one will teach him kung fu, either internal or external, because the village has promised their ancestors that they will never teach kung fu to an outsider. Our hero is not very bright but he is determined, so he hangs around the village getting beat up by everybody – old people, children, the teeny tiny but super awesome love interest, just everyone. Poor Luchan. Meanwhile, the love interest, whose name is Yuniang, has a fiancée, Zijing, who was raised in the village but not born there and has always been treated as an outsider. He went to Europe to be educated and now he wants to bring the railroad to Chen Village, but Chen Village mocks his Western ways. Poor Zijing broods and ignores Yuniang (poor Yuniang) and finally gets so mad at the jerkasses of Chen for laughing at him that he goes, “Fuck you all, I have machinery!” and he goes running off to his superiors at what I think is the East India Company and comes back with this crazy steampunk thing. It's just indescribable, it's like this train engine/dome/tank with a pagoda that comes out of the top and it has gears and flames and jets of steam and these giant claws come out – it was just…I have to go lie down.
OK, I've recovered enough to tell you that Zijing has not only returned with the steampunk machine of doom, but with a Romantic Foil, Claire. Claire has only two things to do in the movie: 1. She must look very badass while steering the machinery of doom with a ship's steering wheel (!) while dressed in a more or less 19th Century naval uniform only with extra gold braid and cascades of lace. 2. She must look vulnerable and ravishing in what we are meant to think is a historically accurate low cut nighty. Luckily the actress who plays Claire does both of these things very well. Yay, Claire. I was hoping Claire and Yuniang would run off together to be lesbian steampunk kung fu pirates but we can't have everything we want from life, even in this movie.
So, now we arrive at the crux of the plot: Luchan still wants to learn kung fu, Luchan has a thing for Yuniang and Yuniang has a growing appreciation for the determination of Luchan, but she still has a crush on Zijing despite being horrified by his steampunk machinery of doom. Claire is pissed because she wants Zijing to stop trying to prove himself to Chen Village and come to London with her. Zijing hangs out in his steampunk pagoda, handsomely brooding. Most importantly, Luchan and Yuniang must stop the steampunk machinery of doom from destroying the village.
One of the things that made this movie over the top fun was that it used all kinds of subtitles and things. I've heard it compared to Scott Pilgrim but I haven't seen Scott Pilgrim so can't compare first hand. By far my favorite touch was that every time a new character shows up a helpful title appears on the screen. I'm sorry I didn't write any of them down, but they were sort of along the lines of, “Hey! It's Uncle Wu! Played by so and so, a founding member of Jackie Chan's Stunt Team!”. Hollywood, I beg you to adopt this practice. Oh, you guys, those titles were wonderful, and they got crazier and crazier.
The other thing that surprised me was that the two major female characters were awesome, particularly Yuniang. As I mentioned, Claire has an aura of awesomeness about her but really she's there to be a romantic complication. Meanwhile, the main love interest, Yuniang, really carries the movie. She beats up bad guys without so much a twitching an eyebrow. She faces down steampunk machinery of doom armed with nothing but a strong sense of righteousness and really good posture. Her character gets to develop a little whereas the nominal protagonist, Luchan, starts off wanting to learn kung fu and ends up wanting to learn kung fu. She moves the plot along whenever Luchan is unconscious, which is often, and she never (with one dramatic and well-done exception) has to be rescued. I was considerably nonplussed to learn that the actress who plays Yuniang is named “Angelababy” but while that did give me considerable pause I must admit that Angelababy is a pretty formidable actress, and as a side note is so gorgeous that looking at her made me a little woozy (actually everyone in this movie is stunning – is it the lighting, or what?).
There's romance in this movie but it looks like the serious sparks between Luchan and Yuniang happen in the sequel (more on that later). The actor who plays Luchan is great at being dim and adorable and he's great at kung fu, but not much else. I was frustrated not to see a more complete romance between him and Yuniang, but really he needs to grow up a little. Meanwhile Angelababy (I never get tired of typing that) is capable of projecting all kinds of layers of emotion and internal conflict and chemistry so she really saves the show as far as the romance goes, and the business between her, Claire and Zijing is quite poignant.
I have a few problems with this movie. One is that the fighting at the beginning was so stylized in terms of choreography and camera work that it was not exciting. Obviously all the fighting was choreographed and stylized but later fights were filmed at a more natural speed so you could really focus on what the fighters were doing. Secondly, I agree with other reviewers that the movie hit a big climatic note – and then just kept going. It was a short movie that felt long. Also it is VERY IMPORTANT that you know that this is the first movie in a trilogy and it ends on something of a cliffhanger. If you don't know that going in, then you will go into a berserker rage during the credits and we can't have that, fun as it would be to watch.
I know my loyal readers have only one question: “But CarrieS, is there a clockwork dog?” No dear readers, there is not. However, the next installment appears to include a biplane made of bamboo and a full size sailing ship, and tons more about the relationship between Luchan and Yuniang, so that's nice. Stay tuned in January for the next installment! As far as the grade goes, I'm not sure how well this movie would hold up to repeated viewing. Probably if I saw it more often the long ending and the bizarre beginning would bug me. But right now I'm on a big happy kung fu buzz so am giving it an A-.
This film is in theatres now. Check your local listings.
ETA: And you can watch the trailer!