I always love a good kung fu movie. Black Belt Theater was one of the things that inspired me to train in martial arts and become a stuntman. Of course being a stuntman means I get my butt kicked by the star 99% of the time I am on film, but hey, it’s a paycheck for doing something I love. I have been working in stunts for about seven years now and have done everything from music videos and commercials to low budget indies and big budget blockbusters. I perform and also coordinate and choreograph fights so I tend to watch action films very carefully and spot any flaws or miscues pretty easily during fight scenes. I figure my kung fu fanboy persona is balanced by my professional stuntie persona, making me a good candidate to give an honest review.
The film is written by Kuo-fu Chen who really hasn’t written many kung fu movies, and has only written nine films total, but more on that later. Directing is Stephen Fung, an actor who I really like that has also directed a few good films including House of Fury and Jump, the latter working with Stephen Chow of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle fame, which is obviously where he tried to go with Tai Chi Zero.
When I first saw the trailer for TC0 it looked like another period piece kung fu movie where the hero is a dopey loser until he unlocks his inner kung fu genius, and for the most part it is. Mix in some slapstick comedy, and slick graphic elements along with performances from some old school kung fu legends and it seems like a recipe for success a la Kung Fu Hustle. Also add that the hero of the film is real life 2008 Wushu Champion Yuan Xiaochao with fights choreographed by Sammo Hung and that should ensure some great action sequences. And for the most part it does deliver on the action.
Where TC0 falls short, for me, is in the writing. And in fairness maybe I should reserve judgment until I see the sequel, Tai Chi Hero, because the film feels incomplete. It really felt like I only watched half of a movie. Yes it was very entertaining and enjoyable, but the characters lacked development and most of the story relied on the clichés of “Western influence bad, Chinese tradition good”, and as mentioned above “dopey loser must unlock potential”. And those themes work well when developed and executed properly, but here they seemed rushed. Again it seems like they were going for Kung Fu Hustle, and they succeeded in the visual aspects, but Stephen Chow is also a tremendous writer and storyteller and it is pretty apparent that Kuo-fu Chen has some learning to do before he reaches Chow’s level. Again, maybe I need to see Hero before making final judgment.
The acting is good for the most part, considering the limited character depth. Tony Leung and Angelababy carry the film while newcomer Yuan Xiaochao plays the dopey loser role well enough. The action sequences are entertaining, but Xiaochao doesn’t really get to strut his stuff, hopefully the sequel will showcase this man’s true skills. There is comedy and cool video game overlays sprinkled in to add some flavor, as well as a few animated sequences to add some more “new school” style.
Overall it seems like all the ingredients were there for success, but the writing just wasn’t up to par for a really engaging storyline. It was hard to feel emotional attachment to many of the characters because little time was spent developing them and building a bond with the audience. It all felt rushed leaving the actors and director little to work with substance wise.
I still recommend seeing the film because it is a fun ride. The story centers on the Chen village where Chen style Tai Chi originates and, historically correct, outsiders from the Chen family were forbidden to learn. The hero travels there and gets his butt kicked around a bit, then the evil British foreigners come to build a railroad and he helps defend the village. The end comes abruptly but really leaves you wanting to see the sequel, which is a good thing.
My 10-year-old son really enjoyed it; he loves video games, and cartoons, kung fu and a good laugh so it was right up his alley. My kung fu Sifu found it to be a bit too slapstick and style over substance, but did acknowledge the Tai Chi was authentic. I found myself right in the middle; I really did enjoy the look and feel of the film, but it just fell short in the story and character department. Hopefully the sequel ties it all together. Fortunately Tai Chi Hero opens in January so I won’t be waiting long to see how it turns out.
Tai Chi Zero opens today in Philly-area theaters.