Directed by: Stephen Fung; Runtime 105 minutes
Overclocked and underperforming -- really, that's the best description I can think of for Tai Chi Zero, the recent martial-arts adventure from House of Fury director Stephen Fung. Branded as a "steampunk king-fu throwdown" in its most prominent trailer with twirling gears, violent mechs, and extensive brawls boasting a vigorous fantastical journey into a cross-bred environment, the film presented here instead hybridizes and juxtaposes with other, lesser ideas in mind, trying much too hard for its own good. Essentially, it's a representation of a creative brain infused with too much caffeine, where a clutter of outside-the-box ideas inspired to combine video games, anime, and cinema surrender to a dearth of substance powering them. Rendering a film hesitant to decide on the tone it wants to achieve and void of the base diversions-value needed to hold one's attention while observing the chaos, this unfortunately isn't the bracing, inventive rush of Asian filmmaking one might expect.
Tai Chi Zero doesn't waste any time losing itself in the excess, either. After an unfocused beginning where slow-motion brawls set to heavy-metal music coexist with an overlong silent-movie-inspired backstory, the story eventually restrains itself a bit once we've learned about Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao), an orphan with a pressure-point on his head that transforms him into a furious warrior who mimics the kung-fu tactics he observes. There's a drawback: every time he's had this point "activated", and it's been frequent given his place among a military faction, his life's essence has been lowered. To counterbalance this, Lu Chan must travel to a village nestled in the heart of a mountain range, the Chen Village, to learn a specific kind of kung-fu that soothes his internal energy and might keep him alive through practice. The village, however, doesn't allow outsiders to learn their craft, forcing Lu Chan to get creative with his pursuit to learn. But once the village comes under attack by a steam-powered machine, he might prove more useful than they're willing to admit.
Tai Chi Zero becomes all about how its visual method shapes the film's tone, and it's quite unruly. Big, bold descriptions of the characters (and actors!) and their fighting styles, blipping health bars, and vibrant fighting-game graphics are easy reminders of the pop-culture dressings that were impressively realized in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World<, which were pertinent to that specific story. Here, those visual elements -- futuristic circles and curved lines underneath feet mid-battle, graphical animations overly inspired by Adobe Illustrator techniques, and a literal "Bam!" here and there -- feel out-of-place and superfluous against a transitory Chinese countryside on the cusp of industrialization; in fact, as we eventually learn, they're fighting against industrialization. Stephen Fung clearly wants to achieve vibrant and cheeky tones that butt heads with the setting, akin to something between Detective Dee and Kung-Fu Hustle with an underdog-turned-champion, but these tactics distract far more than they intrigue (and that's coming from someone who really digs Hausu).
Perhaps it's because these overt tricks add flash where more appealing, tangible elements -- namely the steampunk-infused aesthetic and brisk martial-arts brawls -- would've felt more suited for Tai Chi Zero's purposes. Aside from the opening scene, which does feature some fairly hard-hitting fight sequences (accompanied by jarring heavy metal music), the fisticuffs Stephen Fung drops into the film center on Lu Chan's semi-pacifistic battle through the townspeople, including tofu choppers and young girls, so he might earn their respect and allow him to learn their fighting style. While this rhythm could evoke hard-hitting martial arts, that's not the case here; they're semi-graceful, mostly void of firm aggression, and altogether not very entertaining when they're broken up by limp, buzzed humor. Instead of persistent battles in an environment of spinning mechanics and billowing steam, it's a fanciful underdog story focused on preserving the seclusion of a self-sufficient, non-mechanized town and its martial-arts secrets -- which would've been great, if handled differently.
Of course, one might need to understand that Tai Chi Zero intends on being the starting point for a trilogy, which very well could delve deeper into those things lacking from this installment. However, this story of isolation and industrialization, and an outcast from the town who evolves into a villain concerned with those matters, doesn't work as a standalone piece of work due to its scattered focus and waning narrative. Stephen Fung's willingness to apply off-the-wall components to his film deserves some endorsement, along with keeping his ducks in a row while doing so; however, the rush of visual invention wears off, quickly, the rich photography and intricate production losing their ability to mask the capricious storytelling underneath. And when a preposterous conclusion attempts to replace common sense and momentum with flying vegetables and fickle melodrama, all the health bars, beautiful women, and explosions in the world won't prevent some from wishing it were more of a rough-and-tumble, steampunk throwdown than it ends up being.
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