MacGuffin Film Review – Tai Chi Zero

Film Review – Tai Chi Zero

Tai Chi Zero Movie PosterSince the 1960s, kung fu movies have persisted through an evolutionary series of sub-genres. They started as period pieces, then transferred slowly to a more modern-day setting, before taking off into the nether realms of science fiction and then circling back to period pieces again. Sensing stagnation in audiences and seeking to refresh the genre again, director Stephen Fung has created a kung fu tale that blends period piece with aspects of the sci-fi sub-genre, steampunk, along with a whole lot of Looney Toons style humor. This at first may seem fun and refreshing, but instead comes off as rather tired and underwhelming.

The story in Tai Chi Zero revolves around an idiot named Lu Chan (Jayden Yuan), who’s born with a fleshy lump, like a big mole, on his forehead. When the lump is hit with force, it triggers a demon-like inner possession that causes Lu Chan to lay waste to any- and everything that stands in his way. Observing an opportunity to exploit this power, a war lord takes Lu Chan under his wing and uses him as a secret weapon in battle. The catch to the whole thing is that every time the lump is used, it drains Lu Chan of his life, turning from pink to purple and eventually to black, which means death. When a doctor examines Lu Chan’s lump, he notices it has turned purple and warns Chan to seek out the help of a special internal style of kung fu called Chen Style Tai Chi in Chen Village, or he may soon die.

Lu Chan sets out for Chen Village, only to be denied access to the kung fu he seeks, as it is forbidden for the villagers of Chen to teach their kung fu to any outsiders. However, Lu Chan is determined to save his own life and refuses to back down until someone teaches him. Meanwhile, the village’s prodigal son returns from England with a giant steam-powered robot designed for destruction. He’s been tasked with the mission of relocating Chen Village so a railroad can be built through where it now sits. Sensing an opportunity, one of the villagers, an older man (Tony Leung Kar-fei), takes Lu Chan under his wing and guides him to the way that will help him learn the Chen Style Tai Chi and help the village. Lu Chan is eager to assist, but meets resistance in the daughter of Master Chen, Yuniang (Angelababy), who insists that their rule of not teaching outsiders is maintained. From here, plot points begin to collide and hijinks ensue.

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There is an uneven tone that seems to exist throughout the film. Attempting to combine many different elements from a lot of different places creates an esthetical sense of confusion—one moment the film presents us with goofy, slapstick-style humor; the next moment, it’s conveying a seriousness that it wants its audience to believe permeates underneath its zany antics. Unfortunately, the movie is never that dangerous for that to be. Instead, it bounces, like its Adderall-infused editing style, from shot to shot with organic reflexes that project a whimsical approach that would’ve been better served in a straight-across comedy.

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The apex of this confusion and muddling of genres occurs when Lu Chan accomplishes a goal he never thought possible and decides to celebrate by running around like an excited dog, at which point the film takes a first-person perspective, emulating a mechanism of the video games that inspired Stephen Fung. The CGI, coupled with the all-too-happy music, doesn’t come across as effective as it should’ve and feels quite a bit out of place. Between the frantic editing style and the schizophrenic soundtrack which fluctuates between dub-step, speed-metal, and conventional film scoring, it’s hard to maintain any one direct sense of what exactly was likeable—which is something that doesn’t get any better when it comes to the characters. The most prominent is of course the film’s protagonist, Lu Chan. It’s hard to place exactly what Lu Chan’s deal is; he’s an idiot who seems to be happy about it. But what’s most aggrieves about Lu Chan’s placement in the film is that he’s constantly being used. First it’s the warlord who wants Chan’s lump power for his own, then there’s the elderly man in the village who manipulates Lu Chan into helping destroy the steampunk monster without the return favor of learning the Chen Style Tai Chi that Chan is seeking out.

Tai Chi Zero is actually just the first in what’s supposed to be a trilogy of films that chronicles Lu Chan’s journey to becoming a hero. It seems the filmmakers are taking an approach to Chan in a much similar way to Musashi Miyamoto, a warrior who started as a savage and, through education, became probably the most prominent samurai in Japan, writing The Book of Five Rings and fighting duels with just wooden sticks. Knowing where it’s headed with its sequels, the movie ends rather abruptly with an addendum that sets up the conflict of the next film, and leaves a bit more to be desired as to what this one was supposed to accomplish. Now, having criticized all this, I found myself amused more often than not, and in the end was compelled enough to be upset by the sudden conclusion, out of curiosity for what would happen next. Sometimes, that’s the most, and best, we can ask of a film.

Final Grade: C+

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