Fade Away and Radiate: Tai Chi 0 film review
Tai Chi 0, actor-turned-director Stephen Fung’s new-school martial arts movie, opens this weekend in the U.S. after a pretty successful theatrical run in China. The first of a trilogy, Tai Chi 0 is chock full of what we in the nineties used to call self-reflexivity and is loaded with Brechtian bells and whistles, but ultimately the movie doesn’t have a lot of substance below it’s clever exterior. Although it was a lot of fun while I was watching it, the effects of Tai Chi 0 faded pretty quickly after I left the theater.
The movie’s premise is a nice homage to classic kung fu flicks: talented but naïve youngster attempts to hone his martial-arts chops by seeking out an elusive gong fu master, with many obstacles barring his way. Tai Chi 0’s main character, Yang Lu Chan, is born with a small fleshy horn on the side of his forehead that portends his inborn martial arts prowess. Unfortunately, whenever Yang starts an ass-kicking his life essence is dangerously depleted. In an attempt to counter the deleterious effects of using his powers, Yang journeys to Chen village in hopes of training with the master residing there, but tradition forbids any outsiders learning the village’s kung fu secrets. The movie has fun pitting Yang against villagers using mah jong tiles and tofu to defeat his attempts at learning their ways and Tai Chi 0 is best when it riffs on these familiar tropes. Sammo Hung’s classic action choreography carries the movie’s fight scenes, though it’s undercut a bit by Fung’s shaky-cam and too-quick editing.
Showing some moxie in her role, Angelababy acquits herself pretty well as the spunky heroine, while Eddie Peng as her conflicted boyfriend torn between tradition and the lure of modernity epitomizes duBois’s double consciousness. Newcomer Jayden Yuan Xiaochao as Yang is good as the archetypal kung fu neophyte, though he doesn’t get to do much but fight sporadically and look innocently confused, and Tony Leung Ka-Fei is excellent as a laborer who secretly aids Yang’s quest to learn Chen village kung fu. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Big Tony’s been transitioning nicely to character roles, both here and in Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.
Where Tai Chi 0 departs from its martial arts movie predecessors is through its constant use of quirky onscreen titles, constantly traveling camerawork, and other gaming effects. Recalling an old kung fu movie tradition (more recently adopted by big-budget mainland China agitprop flicks like 1911 and Founding of a Republic), actors are introduced by brief onscreen titles that also declare their resume (ie, “that’s Andrew Lau as Yang’s father: he directed the Infernal Affairs trilogy.”) Other titles both informative and ironic constantly pop up throughout the movie, including those detailing the progress of Yang through his quest, as well as onscreen diagrams tracing the speed and vector of a flying kick and other gameboyesque techniques. The movie also features a steampunky locomotive that resembles a huge cast-iron teapot, with grinding gears and smoking cogs straight out of Modern Times. While this is all very adroit and adds interesting visual texture to the movie, the tricksiness still doesn’t make for a really memorable cinematic experience, unlike, say, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, Tsui Hark’s recent foray into 3-D IMAX which successfully exploited the latest innovations in movie technology to full and insane effect.
But Tai Chi 0 is certainly as diverting as most Hollywood blockbusters and it’s definitely worth seeing on the big screen, if only to catch all of the rapid-fire DFX. It’s fun to see a lot of expensive postproduction imaginatively utilized in a Chinese-language film and I’m all for expanding the boundaries of cinematic expression, so I’ll go see the next two movies in the trilogy. Especially if they make it to the U.S. in 3-D IMAX.