Picking up where Tai Chi 0 left off the second part of Stephen Fung's ambitious steampunk kung fu epic finds mutant martial arts prodigy Yang Lu Chan (real-life Olympic gold medal-winning wushu champion Jayden Yuan Xiao-Chiao) happily ensconced in Chen Village with beautiful yet fiery Yu Niang (AngelaBaby), honing his skills under the tutelage of Grandmaster Chen (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), having seen off the giant robot attack orchestrated by vengeful, western-educated Imperial envoy Fang Zi Jing (Eddie Peng). While the rest of the village is ready to celebrate Yang's wedding to Niang, she herself is none too keen on the idea. In the midst of the ceremony, Chen's estranged son Zai Yang (William Feng) returns home unexpectedly. He soon turns the villagers against Yang by reminding them of an old prophecy wherein a mystic monk (Daniel Wu, who also co-produced) warned any outsider that learns Chen-style kung fu will end up destroying the village. Meanwhile Fang Zi Jing is still at large, gathering powerful Western allies as he gears up for his second shot at revenge.
With the first film actors turned filmmakers Stephen Fung and Daniel Wu revived the Hong Kong New Wave style of martial arts fantasy whose uniquely irreverent tone had been all but eclipsed in the public eye by more solemn and stately mainland Chinese fare. Fusing the breakneck delirium of past classics like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) with the crazy cartoon humour and pop culture allusions of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2011), including an eclectic soundtrack of hip-hop and thrash metal, the resulting off-kilter concoction proved a breath of fresh air. Tai Chi Hero does offer much of the same. Fung's flashy yet undeniably creative direction maintains a dizzying turbo pace wowing the viewer with audacious camera-work, frenetic editing and spectacular set-pieces that seamlessly meld computer graphics, wire-work and outstanding action choreography. One scene wherein Yang flip-kicks a soldier off his horse is a truly showstopping moment. Yet the sequel is also far and away a deeper, more nuanced story paying greater attention to the interaction between characters.
As in the last film central to Tai Chi Hero (from zero to hero, get it?) is the tension between traditional Chinese values and the need to modernize in the face of Western colonial power. Special guest star Peter Stormare, of Fargo (1996) fame, plays an evil envoy from the East India Company. Doing a frankly bizarre British accent, he pulls the strings behind the scenes so Fang can take his revenge. Fang might be the villain but the film lets his point stand about Chinese inflexibility. Zai Yang easily takes advantage of the Chen villagers' xenophobia and superstitious nature to turn them against Yang. Later Grandmaster Chen admits he was wrong to deride Zai Yang's love of western engineering. Indeed a key sequence has the heroes saved by a character piloting a Da Vinci style hang-glider with missile launchers, a tacit admission that traditional ways are not the be all and end all. There is real humanity to the story as it both empathizes with and forgives seemingly villainous characters whilst arguing that the true villain is inflexibility. After all kung is about learning to adapt to new situations.
Even though the film develops the relationship between Yang Lu Chan and Yu Niang in a genuinely sweet and touching manner, its real heart arguably rests in the bruised bond between staunch traditionalist Grandmaster Chen and his embittered, self-loathing yet inwardly decent son Zai Yang. In terms of action the sequence wherein Yang, Niang and Chen blitzkrieg their way through the entire Imperial Army is a definite highlight as is the brilliantly staged hi-wire duel above the palace kitchen that makes up the unexpectedly thoughtful climax. For Hong Kong genre fans the biggest delight is the return of Yuen Biao. He plays Li, a mystical martial arts master Niang and Yang seek out to stop their village being blasted to bits by German-manufactured cannons. Although a trifle hasty the low-key denouement makes perfect sense in retrospect but a post-script implies there may well be a part three.