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Review: ‘Tai Chi Zero’

Pop Culture Mash-Up

Above: "Tai Chi Zero" is the first of a planned Chinese trilogy.

After "The Raid Redemption" earlier this year, all Asian action films seem somehow tame. Among the new releases is "Tai Chi Zero" (opening October 19 at AMC Mission Valley Theaters), the first film in a planned epic trilogy.

"Tai Chi Zero" is being positioned as a Chinese blockbuster and as such it tries very hard to please as many different contingents as possible. So there's martial arts action (and overseen by the legendary Sammo Hung), animated sequences, steampunk elements, Stephen Chow-like comic antics, and a comic book sensibility (think Scott Pilgrim). That's a lot to cram into one film and you sometimes feel that maybe if they had focused on doing just one element well the film would be better.

Director-actor Stephen Fung certainly doesn't lack energy and he keeps his film moving fast and frantic. The film revolves around a martial-art prodigy named Yang Luchan (Jayden Yuan). Yang has a little fleshy horn on his forehead and when it's hit, he turns into a kind of super-powered mystical warrior able to plow through enemies with amazing speed and efficiency. The film moves back and forth in time to show us the adult Yang and than his backstory, and then moves forward. There's not much fresh in the storyline as we follow Yang on his hero's journey and his attempt to control his powers through a fiercely guarded style of tai chi. You get a little of the wise old master formula and a little of the humble villagers standing up for themselves.

The action in "Tai CHi Zero" was staged by the legendary Sammo Hung.

Variance Films

Above: The action in "Tai CHi Zero" was staged by the legendary Sammo Hung.

Fung tries to spruce the familiar tale up, and runs the gamut of visual, tonal, and emotional styles along the way. The film is entertaining but not memorable or impressive. The martial arts action is erratic. Hung mages a few nice hand to hand combat scenes but too many are big battles "enhanced" through CGI. This tends to make the bigger fight scenes look like a video game. Nothing here comes close to the jaw-dropping action of "The Raid" or to anything Sammo did in the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema with his buddies Jackie Chan and Yuen Baio.

Visually, the film has some fun stylistic elements. The mash up of period martial arts and steampunk is nice but not well exploited. And there is one moment that made me think of the Will Smith "Wild Wild West," which is not a good thing. Fung should have taken a lesson from the recent "Let the Bullets Fly" by Jiang Wen. Jiang delivered a mash up of styles, radical tonal shifts, and crazy action but managed to pull it off with amazing success and even a little depth of ideas. What Fung tries for is not impossible, but he just doesn't seem to have the mature skill to pull it off.

"Tai Chi Zero" (in Mandarin with English subtitles) is like fast food for an Asian action connoisseur. But it does end with a pair of lethal looking swordsmen arriving on the scene for part 2, and there's even a trailer at the end of the film to whet your appetite. And although disappointed by this first part of the trilogy, there was enough to hold my interest to make me at least willing to give part 2 a chance.

Companion viewing: "Steam Boy," "Let the Bullets Fly," "Kung Fu Hustle," Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World"

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