Young genius Yang Luchan travels to Chen Village to learn the forbidden secrets of martial arts, but quickly learns that the village is menaced by a formidable battalion of Steampunk soldiers. The villagers realise that in order to save their home, they must trust this strange outsider with their knowledge of Tai Chi.
Tai Chi 0 is manic, high energy martial arts movie making. It’s playful. It wants to be silly, and is. Part homage, part post-modern genre demolition job. It’s like all the boring bits about this school of action cinema have been pulped and the whole thing then re-assembled as a compendium of Big Scenes and Big Moments. Or to put it another way, Tai Chi 0 provides a checklist of stuff that seems primed to make a fanboy/fangirl’s heart go ka-thump. That’s no bad thing of course. It’s part of the movie’s charm. Still, it feels less like a film and more like a teaser with an abundance of incidental pleasures.
Nominally set in the 1800s, the plot is about how a kung fu master developed his moves. But the style isn’t solemn, safe or tragic. It’s crazy with affectations, allusions and visual quotes from other media. At times, it’s like watching an interactive game, except the 'characters’ can actually move their facial muscles. It seems that whenever the kung fu artists here strike up a position, before any fists of fury can fly, director Stephen Fung has his camera execute a robotic 360 degree manoeuvre, Xbox style. At other times, Fung and his team apply computer style graphics to the onscreen image; these titles neatly describe in the martial arts significance of, say, a foot position.
Fung has a sense of history; the cast is filled out with famed martial arts players and choreographers and important filmmakers and most of them are introduced with title cards that happily and succinctly explain who they are, and what they’ve done in tight little CVs. (E.g. When Andy Lau pops up in a bit part, a title reads helpfully: 'Andrew Lau, director Infernal Affairs.)
The script, which Fung wrote, has got steampunk stylings, a silent movie parody, an 'evil’ Western coloniser sub-plot, and a plot so busy, with so many characters, inattentive viewers are advised to keep a white board or small electronic device handy for notes.
The lead here is martial arts champ Yuan Xiaochan, who won a gold medal at the Asian Games in 2006. He looks sort of dazed and a bit out of his depth, and just like most of the cast here, he’s a delight to watch. He plays a character called Yang Luchan but is known as the 'Freak’, mostly because his forehead sports a 'horn’. If he gets banged on his horn, he turns into a brilliant fighter"¦ but only for a short time. Tortured and concerned that he cannot control this force, Yang is advised to travel to the Chen village, which is the 'home’ of a certain special kind of kung fu. On arrival, no one wants to teach Yang the tai chi moves that will catapult him into master ranks. Much of the comedy of the film lies in these scenes; it’s funny (and an inter-textual joke) to see Yang/Yuan get hammered by an all ages cast of nobodies. Still, one old guy offers the sage advice to Yang: If you’re getting beaten here, why not copy your opponents moves?
Meanwhile, the village has got its own issues. Young handsome dandy Zijing (Eddie Peng) has brought the railroad to Chen, along with the phonograph and the electric light. The locals fear the new technology (and why wouldn’t they? The 'train’ here looks like a gigantic turtle with spider arms and evil claws). Zijing must ultimately choose between his alliance with the Westerners and his loyalty to his love, Yu Niang (Angelababy), the daughter of Chen’s ultimate kung fu master.
Yang also falls in for Yu Niang; even after she bashes him up. After setting an intricate cross-plot of romantic intrigue and culture clash, Fung reduces the narrative to the basics: Will Yang ever get to meet the master? Can the village repel a hostile takeover? ...and who gets the girl and wins the fight?
There’s a great battle near the end, which features more fruit and veges than fists and feet, but in story terms, Fung is playing with us. Few of the movie’s big questions are ultimately answered after the 90-something minutes are up. The film’s true 'ending’ is embedded in the credits, which features a trailer for the sequel that continues and develops the story started here and, in fact, it looks rather good. And just as crazed, artificial and comic book-like as this one is. Fung says he’s planning a franchise. It will be interesting to see how fast and how far he can go with a style and vision as wild and feverish as this.