Tai Chi 0: Venice Review
Stephen Fung's much-awaited steampunk kung-fu actioner showcases stars Tony Leung Ka-fai, Eddie Peng and Shu Qi.
Victorian age steam energy meets kick-ass martial arts in a wacky, hyper, head-on collision, Tai Chi 0, an exuberant attempt to weld steampunk to kungfu in a big-budget Chinese actioner. Successful? Hardcore teenage fantasy fans and video-gamers may find director Stephen Fung’s brand of irreverent comedy irresistible, but viewers past the youngest demographics will tune out to the threadbare comic book-style story and childish characters, though not without a few amazed laughs at the inventive audacity of the project. The first of a promised trilogy produced by China’s Huayi Brothers (Tai Chi Hero is announced for later this fall), it will be released in Australia and Asia following the film’s Venice and Toronto bows, and in the U.S. in October by Variance Films.
From the creators of the hybrid hit Shaolin Soccer and the visual marvel Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Tai Chi 0 takes a decidedly more laid-back approach to story-telling. The opening scene makes a comic virtue out of its disjointed editing, as it introduces goofy but likable young hero Yang Luchan (wushu star-turned-actor Yuan Xiaochan), known as “the Freak” on account of a small horn of flesh protruding from his head. This, it turns out, is the mark of a martial arts genius. When hit on the horn, he turns into a raging demon fighter undefeatable in battle. Everything is humorously signalled in letters superimposed over the screen, a technique used throughout the film that grows old rather quickly.
Suddenly a flashback to Luchan’s babyhood is required. In one of Fung’s best gags, it’s filmed as a spoof on silent films with dialogue written in old-fashioned inter-titles. As Luchan’s mother, the lovely face of Shu Qi appears, first of Tai Chi’s parade of star cameos. (Actors are duly announced with on-screen pop-up credits.) Convinced of her son’s potential as a future kung fu master, she steals from her elderly husband to ensure his future, with tragic consequences.
Back to the battle. After losing his master in a firestorm perpetrated by the Imperial forces, Luchan escapes in search of the legendary Chen village, where he plans to learn unique local tai chi techniques that will make him a master. The only hitch is that the villagers refuse to teach outsiders, and each time he applies for lessons, he’s soundly beaten by young and old alike, in amusingly off-the-wall action sequences choreographed by the renowned Sammo Hung. Only a solitary old workman (Tony Leung Ka-fai) befriends him and, although he can’t teach him, wisely advises him to copy the moves of his attackers.
Among the host of characters who live in Chen village is charming Yu Niang (rom com star Angelababy), daughter of the elusive master that Luchan is seeking. Her imperturbable expression and graceful tai chi moves reduce his body to a pulp while they capture his heart. Unfortunately for him, she’s already in love with Anglophile Zijing (heart-throb Eddie Peng), who appears dressed to the hilt in a waistcoat and stovepipe hat, while Yu Niang tries to impress him in an empire dress and braided hair. Zijing’s new-fangled ideas from England are snubbed by the Chen traditionalists. He’s supposed to personify the evil Western industrial revolution that is about to overrun China, but in its typically careless, wishy-washy style, the film also suggests some innovations like electricity and the gramophone might not be so bad.
Zijing’s villainy is finally clarified when he reappears inside a steam-run metal monster hell-bent on destroying the village. It’s manned by English soldiers and captained by Claire, a deliciously frilly British officer he plans to marry. At this point the script is truly out of control, but audiences who have followed it this far will probably not fret about the details. There are plenty of gags still to come, including a fruit and vegetable battle with more Imperial forces, and marvellous cogs and gears to admire inside the steam monster which echo, on a much smaller scale, the extraordinary sets of Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee.
The film ends abruptly with end credits rolling at unreadable, breakneck speed, then a Hollywood-style trailer for the sequel, when the umpteen loose ends will presumably be tied up.
Venue: Venice Film Festival, Aug. 27, 2012.
Production companies: Huayi Brothers, Taihe Investment, Diversion Pictures
Cast: Eddie Peng, Angelababy, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Daniel Wu, Shu Qi,
Screenwriter: Kuo-fu Chen
Director: Stephen Fung
Producer: Wang Zhongjun
Director of photography: Yiu Fai Lai
Production and costume designer: Yip Kam-tim
Editors: Cheng Hsaio-tse, Matthew Hui, Zhang Jialu, Zhang Weili
Music: Katsunori Ishida
Sales Agent: Huayi Brothers International
No rating, 99 minutes.