‘Zero’ delivers big tai-chi fun
Angelababy faces down a man-made monster in “Tai Chi Zero.”
Updated: October 24, 2012 2:26PM
“Tai Chi Zero”
This highly stylized post-modern take on a traditional Hong Kong martial-arts adventure is every bit as entertaining as it is exciting, so much so that it’s close in spirit to Jackie Chan’s classic kung-fu comedies of the ’70s and ’80s. That’s not so surprising when you consider that the action choreography in this film was created by the legendary Sammo Hung, who co-starred with his lifelong friend Chan in many of those same films and also made a name for himself as a director and fight choreographer.
Fans of the genre — possibly even non-fans — are likely to find it so much fun, in fact, that it won’t matter much when it becomes clear that “Tai Chi Zero” places much more emphasis on spectacle than story.
In the interest of full disclosure, it must be said that this movie was reviewed at a screening where a glitch in the download resulted in the preview audience watching the film without benefit of subtitles. It soon became clear, though, that the lack of translation made little difference. The major players and plot developments were easy to track even without the details that might have been provided by comprehensible dialogue. Whether or not that’s a good or bad thing is debatable. Silent movies, after all, got their points across pretty well with just a title card here and there.
Speaking of which, silent-film is the first of many stylized visual effects trotted out by Hong Kong action star turned director Stephen Fung (“House of Fury”). After our introduction to hero Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) in the midst of a battle, when he is transformed into an out-of-control demonic kung-fu fighting secret weapon when someone punches the little horn growing out of his forehead, Fung presents Chan’s tragic back story in a lengthy silent-movie interlude. We see how he was born with the horn that makes him a kung-fu prodigy, then ostracized when his powers are discovered and orphaned when his mother commits suicide because of the shame.
Chan’s supernatural powers make him a valued warrior, but they also threaten his life every time they are used. So when he learns of a little village in which all the inhabitants are skilled in a form of Tai Chi that could help him control his abilities, he decides to travel there and learn their secrets. Unfortunately, the villagers refuse to share their secrets with outsiders, which results in Chan being pounded repeatedly by old women, little girls and Chen Yunia (Angelababy), the beautiful daughter of the local martial-arts master (Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung).
All of this is presented in an energetic and inventive visual style by Fung that includes surprisingly artful, video-game style graphics, which include pop-up information introducing characters along with information about the actors playing them, as well as analysis of the comparative strengths and weaknesses of opponents in fights — as well as occasional comic-book style animated sequences. Remarkably, all of those elements blend together well, complementing the narrative instead of distracting from it.
“Tai Chi Zero” (the first of a trilogy; look for “Tai Chi Hero” in January) goes even farther out by introducing a pseudo-Victorian Steampunk component to the plot, which also dovetails with a romantic triangle. Chan is attracted to Chen Yunia (despite the fact that she sends him flying on more than one occasion). Yet she is engaged to Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng), a village prodigal son who left in shame and returned with a giant steam-powered construction machine, intending to raze the village to make way for a railroad — right around the time that Chan finally catches on to the Tai Chi technique and joins forces with the villagers to protect their home.
None of those plot elements get much in the way of dramatic development, but you’re not likely to mind. This is one of those times when less, even unto “Zero,” is more than enough for a good time.