Martial arts meets steampunk in Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi Zero, a love letter of sorts to all things martial arts, film, and pop culture. Tai Chi Zero is a pop-art take and the first half of a story on the life of Yang Luchan (played by national wushu champion, Yuan Xiaochao), founder of the Yang school of tai chi. Set during the Xinhai Revolution, Luchan is known as The Freak due to a protruding flesh on his head that gives him great potential in learning martial arts. His life is in danger of overexerting his inner “chi” through malpractice of martial arts and must seek the help from the Chen Village to learn tai chi, a form of martial arts that’s not taught to outsiders. Meanwhile, the industrial revolution makes its way over to the east, which threatens the way of life in this humble village. Can Luchan get through the obstacles that the villages bring forth, help the villagers stop the “monster” from destroying their town and do so before time runs out literally for himself?
The film is full of pleasant surprises for those familiar with Hong Kong and Chinese cinema and director Stephen Fung’s style is cheeky and fun. Featuring fun cameos by notable faces such as Shu Qi, Andrew Lau (director of Infernal Affairs), Bruce Leung (Gallants) and other notable Chinese athletes plus a visual style that is inspired by elements from his childhood, such as video games, to current trends (apparently, Sammo Hung plays Angry Birds on set and when Fung saw, he wanted him to incorporate that aesthetic into his choreography and visual style), Tai Chi Zero is a great homage to the Chinese entertainment industry, old and new.
Despite the main cast having little to no martial arts experience, they’re still great in the roles and the CGI used to enhance the moves do not distract, meshing well with Fung’s fun, outgoing style. Fung has always been good at utilizing exaggerated choreography to enhance his work, such as with his sophomore directorial effort, House of Fury featuring Anthony Wong Chau Sung as a martial arts master. Angelababy shows range and Tony Leung Ka Fai is always a hoot to watch. Eddie Peng makes a sympathetic villain and despite the over-the-top relationship between him and Mandy Lieu, a key scene between them will make you burst out laughing. The film is cheese but it’s such good cheese that audiences will have so much fun watching it. The cast looks like they have a lot of fun and genuine sincerity in making the movie and it’s rare to see such livelihood coming from a big film like this. I can’t wait to see Tai Chi Hero (the second part) and considering how it’s coming out a month after the first in China, I hope it’ll reach us pretty soon as well.
Tai Chi Zero replays Tuesday, September 11 at 1pm in the TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 and Saturday, September 15 at 6:30pm at Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 3.