TIFF Review: Tai Chi Zero

Tai Chi Zero (2012, directed by Stephen Fung)

This movie is... well, there's... it just... I mean, fuck.

I don't want to simply rehash the tweet I sent out right after seeing it, but it's really the best description I've got. Tai Chi Zero is the crazy, crazy baby of Kung Fu Hustle and Scott Pilgrim. Ostensibly it's a Chinese historical epic about Yang Lu Chan, the man who popularized tai chi, and tells the standard tale of his quest to learn the secrets of the style and master them, but at the same time it's a batshit, steampunk-infused story of good versus evil, tradition versus progress, and xenophobia versus inclusiveness delivered along with a visual maelstrom of comic book elements. Yes, I said steampunk. Chinese steampunk. Deal with it.

This is most giddily ridiculous film I've seen in a long time. It feels like almost every frame gets jazzed up with something. I suppose it's become a bit old hat to superimpose a credit when a character appears on screen for the first time, but when have you seen superimposed credits that list not only the character and the actor playing them, but also why the actor is in the film? (For example, the actress who plays Sister Mahjongg apparently coached the 2008 Italian Olympic Wushu team. I looked it up - they scored a silver. Good job, Sister Mahjongg!) When tai chi techniques get used, charts pop up showing you the appropriate foot placement and movements so, I guess, you can practice them yourself. And when our hero finally arrives at the tiny mountain village that's the home of the fabled tai chi practitioners, a handy legend appears denoting what all the buildings are, and even helpfully points out a flagpole. It's hilarious, and absurd, and awesome.

The fighting is fantastic, no surprise when you have a cast of Olympic coaches and '70s martial arts film legends and whatnot. Fung shows it in small doses though and is liberal with the wire work and effects, sometimes putting them to the most ridiculous uses. 2008 Olympic Wushu overall champion (hmm, 2008 must have been a good year for wushu) Yuan Ziaochao makes his film debut in the lead, and plays Yang Lu Chan as, well, as an idiot. Half his dialogue seems to be him saying "What the hell?" at stuff that really shouldn't require that much explanation. He's great at it though, giving Chan a naivete and optimism that carries him through when his intellect and martial arts prowess fail him. If Jackie has an heir this is probably him: Yuan seems to have a clear gift for comedy along with his fighting chops. And Hong Kong model/actress Angelababy shines as Chan's main foil and inevitable love interest (sort of), the daughter of the legendary tai chi master Chen, who is played with gruff but lovable charm by Tony Leung Ka Fai.

There are two really awful things about seeing Tai Chi Zero though. One, it's only the first half of the story. Tai Chi Hero is still apparently in post-production, so the plot just stops dead at the end of the movie and it's kind of cruel because there's about to be a big wedding and everything and I want to see how it ends right the hell now now NOW. They do throw a trailer for Tai Chi Hero in the credits though, so that's something. Peter Stormare even shows up in it, because why not. Also, in China they get to see this insane thing in Imax 3D, while we were stuck with a 2D print over here. Given what Fung does with the other technical elements of the film I can only imagine what his mad genius did with the 3D.

Look, Tai Chi Zero has major pacing problems and the music could be better and the English dialogue is of course stilted, but you won't care. You simply won't care. It's too awesome.

It's just... ridiculous. Stupid, and ridiculous, and an assload of fun.

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