New Heroine In Town
The first thing that'll jump out at you should you watch the trailer and promotional clips, is the steampunk influences in this martial arts film. But don't let that bother you too much because it's nothing but a large red herring, and something of a gimmick, that added a fun element to the typical story of a zero to hero, only that this Stephen Fung directed film comes in two parts, splitting it down the middle to focus on its protagonist's journey from a nobody to a somebody, surrounded by a village full of highly skilled exponents out to defend their livelihood.
The plot is pretty generic and derivative, but thankfully the film has its technical department to thank for, in dressing this up really beautifully, with the story focusing on its countless of different easter eggs to bring on the laughs, or the surprises, that keep on coming in fast and furious fashion. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and has many tongue in cheek moments clearly set to lull the viewer into what would be an anime inspired presentation gone life action, and it worked incredible wonders, even though it's half a story, with the promise of more to come in the sequel (which is already primed for release later this month) for this mixed-genre film.
It centers around Yang Lu Chan, played by newcomer Jayden Yuan, who himself is a former world champion in Wushu, likely to follow the footsteps of Jet Li if this film takes off at the box office, given that this is quite the showreel for the young martial artist turned action actor. His character is born with a small horn at his right temple, which is indicative that his is a life blessed with natural kung fu prowess if harnessed correctly, and destined for something great. But he ended up with the rebels fighting an ailing Qing dynasty, before having to flee to the fabled Chen Village, where he is to seek the village chief in order to be imparted a set of Tai-chi inspired martial arts, in order to control and expel the inner injuries he's sustained, threatening his life. And each time he uses his skills, the shorter his lifespan becomes, during this critical stage.
But things are never made easy for the protagonist of course, and he gets bullied by Master Chen's daughter Chen Yu Niang (Angelababy), and other skilled exponents all trained in the same arts, which has been decreed never to be taught to outsiders. Most of the film deals with Yang's persistence, at times comical, in wanting to pummel his way to the village and pick up the necessary skills, made easier through his innate ability to pick up skills through observation. The real adversary comes from the external and manifold. There's Eddie Peng as Fang Zijing, a western educated man who finds no love from the Chen Village where he comes from, and is the fiance of Yu Niang, having put in a crossroads where he's heading a project for the government in building a railway cutting right through the Village. He's slimy, and he's a cad, and it'll be interesting to see how his character develops in the next film. Then there's the threat of the Qing forces combined with the British forces who now find it lucrative to come exploit the Middle Kingdom. And if that's not all, the final scene sees two strangers at the brink of infiltrating the village, primed to lead into the next film.
And let's not forget about the steampunk inspired designs of a huge railway builder, which is just the tip of the iceberg on the technical strengths that this film boasts, from visual effects, to sets, to martial arts designed none other than Sammo Hung himself. Angelababy had the stunt team to thank for looking believable as the village chief's highly skilled daughter, fighting with a degree of grace, while Tony Leung Ka Fai's role also had him work with the stunt wires to lift him up the pedestal of one of the movie's greatest combatants, and then some. The playful character introductions throughout the film is something of a highlight as well, as Stephen Fung managed to assemble a variety of legendary actors, directors, and martial arts exponents to pop up as cameo and supporting characters for a scene or two, such as Shu Qi, Andrew Lau, and even Bruce Leung, amongst others, so keep your eyes peeled.
Some may dislike Tai Chi Zero for being all over the place, but that is nothing but its primary appeal, and Stephen Fung has assembled a extremely unique piece of martial arts filmmaking, dabbling into the era of silent films for flashbacks, animation for the opening credits and then some, and with a general eye, and aggressive camera work to visually spice up the narrative with a playful look and feel from first person perspectives, to anime and comic book styled fonts that appear either to move the story along, or translate sound effects into a comical visual treat. I'm already all pumped up for the follow up film, since there were many sub story arcs left hanging in the balance, and am reserving my call whether this could possibly be a favourite amongst the year's selection.