Yang Luchan was born with a “horn” (a peanut potusion) on his head that destined him to be a martial arts prodigy. When his horn is hit, Yang turns into a berserker and crushes everything in his vicinity. However, the berserker mode severely depletes his life force, so Yang travels to far away Chen Village to learn a powerful form of Tai Chi that can slow down the progression of his illness. Though the Chen villagers are forbidden from teaching their martial arts to outsiders, Yang becomes their best hope for survival when a man arrives to build a railroad through the village.
Two phrases come to mind: unrepentantly cliche and wonderfully funny. This is not a kung fu film that is all gloom and doom – think less “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and more “Kung Fu Hustle” and “Shaolin Soccer.” Tai Chi Zero watches like a blend between a comic book and a video game adaptation (though it is completely original). The movie’s whooshing cinematography and chop chop editing slices to flashy bold comic book pages to transition between settings and preview the next “story arc.” Unknown places are colorfully annotated on screen with their titles, ranging from hard fact “Ancestral Hall”, “Windy Mountain” to witty commentary “Uh? A Side Door…?”. Opponents (and their epic skills) are introduced via character cut screens (cool pose and bold calligraphy titles like “SHEN SI, BROTHER TOFU, 12th generation Tai Chi Master” included). The face-off starts with a “X VS Y” panel and ends with a dramatic “K.O.”
It’s all very Street Fighter-ish, including an overused plot. So don’t go in expecting deep philosophy from Tai Chi Zero. The most serious topic, the fate of the village, romance, death, etc., that touches the main character turns comedic in five seconds. It’s a movie where you know the ending (MASSIVE SPOILER: …the good guys win) from the beginning, … but it’s still definitely worth it to watch how they get there. Just for complete disclosure, let me tell you the biggest wtf right here: there’s a foreigner in the movie. OMG. And she’s not just some minor background character. She’s a love interest of the villain. She gets lines. Chinese lines. *insert whistle here*
Also, Tai Chi Zero gets extra kudos for being a kung fu + steampunk movie.
I picked up the movie without knowing it was a steampunk movie and was pleasantly surprised. Of course, the steampunk is like 20% based on reality and 80% fake science, and requires everyone to stop rationalizing and just believe to enjoy the movie. Be forewarned that 99% of the giant gears in machines are just there to look cool and only 1% is required to make it function. But that’s cool. I buy that.
Character development can be summed up as “nonexistent,” which meshes quite well with a thoroughly cliche plot. But that… actually doesn’t matter. Who has time for character development anyways in a kung fu movie anyways?! The motto of Tai Chi Zero rings tried and true: they either come awesome, or not at all. Vice versa also applies. Once a loser, always a loser.
This last line is made to describe the sad pathetic life of the villain. He was bullied as a kid in a kung fu village because he was forbidden from learning kung fu. Cue huge inferiority complex. As an adult, he studied abroad in London, learned fake science, and came back to show his “backwards” village the might of Western technology and his newfound superiority. Unfortunately, he failed and thus, remained a loser for life. Sorry buddy. You tried, but it was never going to work.
I mean, technology vs. kung fu? Pfft. In Kung Fu Hustle, I saw some guy just nuke a huge complex with his hand and left a Manhattan-sized palm print on the ground. Obviously, Kung Fu > Technology, via the the Theorem of Boundless Imagination (what you envision as a kung fu power will always be stronger than fake science, which is crippled by a reliance on explanation). I say, therefore I am. While there’s no obvious overpowered cheating in Tai Chi Zero, this generous graciousness comes only because filmmakers had to make the villain at least somewhat threatening. The absolute dominance of kung fu can’t be too obvious (even though it kind of is). How do I know this? Soldiers armed with guns vs Chen village armed with fruit. Fruit won. QED.
The only thing that put a dent in my carefree enjoyment of Tai Chi Zero was the main character, which makes it hard for me to give this movie a super high rating. I don’t go into a kung fu movie expecting much brain action, but I was still taken aback when the main character is an idiot. This is not an exaggeration; he is legitimately born with cognitive issues and spends most of the movie getting manipulated by people who just use him for kamikaze missions. Main character literally spent a week getting beaten up by various people, but that experience of failing was just wasted on him. Despite being able to copy any martial arts moves he sees, the thought of using those same moves against the people he is challenging again and again never even passes his thoughts. This is a guy who, after failing to invent the lightbulb 10,000 times, will go on to fail another 1,000,000 times. His mentor literally had to tell him straight up to use his new moves and MC has to digest this information twice before applying it and finally winning a fight, proving once and for all that brains > brawn. No matter how strong you are, you can’t win at life if you can’t think.
Yet, in the end, the idiot hero defeated the smart villain. The moral of this development? Luck beats all. Continue reading