Set in early nineteenth century China, Tai Chi 0 tells the story of Yang Lu Chan (Jayden Yuan Xiao-Chao), a humble peasant lad born with an abnormal growth on his forehead that when struck turns him into an unstoppable kung fu dynamo with glowing eyeballs. His abilities make him an invaluable asset in battle as shortly after his mother is murdered, Lu Chan is forced to fight for the Imperial army. Unfortunately Lu Chan discovers his superpowers are slowly killing him. Wise old martial arts master, Old Zhao (Fung Hak-On) helps Lu Chan escape slavery and advises him the one way to save his life is to master the mystical ways of tai chi at the fabled village of Chen. However Lu Chan discovers the inhabitants of Chen have sworn never to reveal their secrets to an outsider and is shunned by all save for a mysterious eccentric (Tony Leung Ka-Fai). Meanwhile, Chen’s most powerful fighter, the beautiful Yu Niang (AngelaBaby) returns home with her sweetheart, Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng). The western educated Zijing tries to introduce the villagers to the wonders of electricity, coffee, phonographs and other progressive ideas, but all his efforts fail. When the governor orders Zijing to clear the village to make way for the new railway, the embittered engineer strikes back with a vast steampunk army including a massive mechanical monster called TROY No. 1. Smitten with Yu Niang and eager to prove his worth to the Chen elders, Lu Chan sets out to save the village.
For a while it looked like the irreverent Hong Kong kung fu fantasy flick had become an endangered species swept away by the grandiose solemnity of mainland Chinese epics like Hero (2003). Recently however some young talents active in the industry have set about trying to revive the unique energy and uninhibited imagination that characterised those heady efforts from the New Wave days of the Eighties and Nineties, the movies that made many of us fans of Hong Kong cinema in the first place. The most high profile and, happily, profitable effort yet, Tai Chi 0 excited a lot of people with its killer combination of steampunk sci-fi and kung fu throwing in some animation, a hip-hop/rock fusion soundtrack, CGI robots and frenetic action choreography supervised by the legendary Sammo Hung.
Co-produced by actors Daniel Wu and Stephen Fung, who also directs, this two-part epic (with a third film due in 2014) incorporates visual influences drawn from console games, Japanese animation and Hollywood blockbusters in a spirited, anything-goes manner that drew some comparisons with Edgar Wright’s much-underrated Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2011) that was itself at least partly indebted to Cantonese mo lei tau comedies. Yet as was the case with Tsui Hark’s seminal Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) beneath the madcap surface lurks a profound philosophical intent hinging on the age old theme of the warrior on a transformative journey. Just like the protagonists of Heaven Sword, Dragon Sabre (1978), Bastard Swordsman (1983) or Swordsman II: Invincible Asia (1992), fighting increasingly outlandish opponents and learning new moves grants the hero a greater understanding of the universe. Despite Hung’s full-throttle kung fu choreography the film retains a pleasing pacifist element in that the heroes go out of their way to avoid killing anyone save, in one instance, by accident.
There is also an intriguing political dimension. As in Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China (1991) the story unfolds amidst an age of socio-political upheaval with China torn between traditional values and the promise of a brighter future thanks to the arrival of Western technology. Fung admittedly casts European imperialists as the bad guys but also includes a vaguely sympathetic star-crossed love interest for Fang Zijing in the fetching form of Claire (popular mixed-race model Mandy Lieu) whilst drawing the Chen elders as stubbornly inflexible, reactionary and xenophobic. By contrast the film portrays Lu Chan and Yu Niang as progressive heroes who value traditional ideals but also see the wonder and potential in western ideas. Interestingly though, Fung still has his heroes come across as flawed given their rash actions end up making a bad situation worse while ostensible villain Fang Zijing emerges a sympathetic figure.
As the first part of an epic saga this bears the weight of having to introduce a lot of characters and set several sub-plots in motion. Despite some pacing problems, a few stilted performances and editing that can’t quite muster the turbo-charged abandon of the New Wave flicks of old, the emotionally complex story proves consistently engaging. It is a quantum leap over Stephen Fung’s last outing as actor-director, the lacklustre family film House of Fury (2005), as he quite cleverly utilizes the visual grammar of video games to dissect the philosophical minutiae of kung fu. As a director he continuously comes up with interesting little visual ideas to propel the story forward including a charming flashback to Lu Chan’s childhood done as a silent movie pastiche complete with title cards and a cameo from the ever-watchable Shu Qi as his doomed mother.
Olympic gold medal-winning wu shu champion Jayden Yuan Xiao-Chao and radiant Chinese fashion icon AngelaBaby prove a pair of engaging leads whose enthusiasm and charisma transcend their occasionally amateurish emoting. Fung also assembles a delightful supporting cast ranging from cameos from veteran martial arts film stars to scene-stealing newcomers including real life martial arts prodigy Wei Ai Xuan as a scrappy little kung fu girl who goes head to head with mechanical behemoth TROY Number 1. The film ends on a cliffhanger that sets up the sequel Tai Chi Hero. From zero to hero, get it?