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January 22, 2013

Tai Chi Zero

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Stephen Fung - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

I assume that most readers here have at least heard of this film. The concise description making the rounds is a mix of martial arts and steampunk. Even as the film has the unusual blend of a couple of genres, Tai Chi Zero has also been one of the more divisive movies, with critics loving or loathing this film. And I will admit there are some things that I did not like here, but there was more that finally won me over.

I guess someone thought it would be amusing to have superimposed titles for everything, and I mean every building, cave, and even a side door. Even more annoying were the titles that introduced much of the cast: "Look! It's Shu Qi". I mean, it's cool that director Andrew Lau took time for a cameo role as the father of the hero, but it got to a point where it seemed like this who's who in the cast was getting in the way of an actual movie. There are also animated diagrams of the various martial arts moves, as well as bits of narrative that are animated. The effect might be described as Chinese filmmakers creating a Chinese genre movie through the filter of Quentin Tarantino's hommages to classic films.

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Even one of the basic plot elements is one of the most overused in westerns, about the railroad coming to town. The town is a small, remote, mountain village. The guy bringing in the railroad is a son of the village, now western educated, and introducing people to electricity and recorded music. And the railroad is not just coming to town, but it's coming in the form of a giant steam engine contraption that not only lays tracks, but also has the ability to tear down buildings as a powerful steam shovel. One of the more interesting aspects to Tai Chi Zero is not simply the inclusion of the train, and a large, steam propelled automobile, but that the machines are inspired by designs by Leonardo Da Vinci.

The Tai Chi comes in the main narrative of a young man, Lu Chan, with a strange protuberance on his forehead, one that enables him to be quite powerful with his kung-fu, but not without deadly consequences. One blow to the head too many, and Lu Chan is encouraged to go the the mountain town of Chen to learn something called internal kung fu. As an outsider, Lu Chan fights several people including the martial arts master's daughter, a little girl, and a guy holding a block of tofu, in order to prove himself worthy. The real kung fu master here is action choreographer Sammo Hung.

The real tension belongs to the conflict between unbending Chinese tradition and the unthinking cultural and political imperialism of the west. While no country is identified, the film's villains are the western educated young man, dressed with a top hat and western clothing while still sporting the Manchu hair queue, and a Eurasian woman, first seen in a military style uniform. The pair are supported by caucasian soldiers, with the endorsement of a Chinese governor.

As much as Tai Chi Zero may be sold as a martial arts fantasy, the film can also be understood as also being about the tensions of contemporary China, holding on to defining traditions, get also getting increasingly westernized. It's also a film primarily made for a younger, more western style Chinese audience that would rather listen to hip hop in any language, rather than the stylings of, say, Teresa Teng. And yeah, there's a sequel, clips of which can be seen during the final credits. I want to see that Da Vinci inspired flying machine.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 22, 2013 07:37 AM