This saga continues the story of Yang Luchan (Daniel Wu), a young genius who, tired of being picked on, travelled to Chen Village to learn the art of Tai Chi. Luchan finds out the hard way that it is forbidden for a villager to teach an outsider. But when a terrifying army of soldiers shows up, the villagers realise that in order to save their home, they must trust this strange outsider.
A month ago I reviewed Tai Chi 0, Stephen Fung’s manic post-modern martial arts CGI driven mini-epic and part one of a planned trilogy and what the filmmakers hope, if the hype is to be believed, will be a major franchise.
there’s lot of talk and not much biff
This new film resolves a multitude of narrative questions that were left unanswered at the end of 0, which was about how a kung fu master learnt his moves. The new film explains how he was able to find 'harmony’ in mind, body and spirit.
I thought the first picture was irredeemably silly; it was impossibly energetic, full of colour, character and incident and almost inexplicable in its plot machinations. What was most fun about it was its sense of play; Fung seemed to want his kung fu movie and mock it too.
I was forced to wonder whether that kind of feverish and wild style could survive over a grand story arc. Still, after watching this much straighter 'sequel’, I have to admit I think I was a little too hard on 0. I think this more sober narrative-driven piece could have used some of 0’s wackiness.
Fung hasn’t abandoned irony or comedy entirely. He still uses 'pop-up’ titles and camera moves borrowed from interactive gaming. And he still takes time out from the main action for comedy vignettes. But this is more earnest, mostly because a large portion of the film’s action is dedicated to exploring personal character issues: husband vs. wife/son vs. father. Some of this intriguing; but the film seems aiming for a grandeur that isn’t there in the premise. There is honour and betrayal here, but there’s no gravity to it. The character stakes have no hold, but the infrequent action certainly does.
The plot picks up where 0 ended. Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiao Chao) and Yu Niang (Angelababy), the daughter of Grandmaster Chen, are now wedded in a marriage of convenience. (It was a 'pay-off’ for Yang helping to beat out the bad guys last time.) Yu Niang reminds Yang that there are not really husband and wife but master and pupil. She’ll teach him the Chen village’s patented brand of kung fu if he refrains from, um, putting the moves on her. Dutifully Yang, who, like the film, isn’t much interested in sex or sensuality, seems happy to sleep on the floor.
Hero offers up a string of new characters and adds half a dozen new plot strands. There is Yu Niang’s older brother Zai Yang (Feng Shao Feng). He hatches a scheme to embarrass Yang and shame the village (since it has a tradition of excluding all outsiders from their code of martial arts). There’s also steampunk subplot involving him too, but it wouldn’t be fair to expose the details here since it would be a spoiler – but fans can look forward to a bird-like flying machine.
There’s also Peter Stormare as an East India agent who conspires to lay waste to Chen village so he can run a railway through it. He uses Zi Jing (Eddie Peng), scarred and bitter after his defeat, and the end of the first part in an intrigue that includes much double-crossing by political power players amongst China’s elite that expands on 0’s subplot about evil colonial corrupters.
Fung had the first film shaped around a series of short fight scenes with an absolute minimum of dialogue. Here there’s lot of talk and not much biff. It’s not exactly boring, but since the dramatic burden falls on Yuan Xiao Chao and Angelababy – strong personalities but not great actors – these scenes have a draggy, forced feel.
Still, Fung and co. do have a set piece here that eclipses everything in Tai Chi 0. It’s a lengthy battle scene where our heroes must defeat an entire army of bad guys. The odds are impossible and the action defies all logic, physics and rational thought. And I for one wouldn’t have it any other way.