Just as the nation as a whole sneaks up on surpassing the United States of America as the world’s foremost superpower (if it hasn’t already), China has become more and more important to the movie world in the last few years. Grosses for the relatively few American movies released there are huge (“The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” both just opened to big numbers), helping blockbusters make coin overseas even if they tank at home, while Chinese financiers are getting more and more involved in production of movies (as in “Looper” or “Iron Man 3,” both partially produced by Chinese companies, and featuring scenes set in the nation). And now, is China starting to beat Hollywood at its own blockbuster game?
No film produced in the country has broken out at the box office recently in the way that “Hero” did, but “Tai Chi Zero,” the latest from actor-turned-director Stephen Fung (“Gen-X Cops,” “House Of Fury”), is certainly on the same playing field as big U.S. studio productions. A lavish, FX-packed martial arts action film with a steampunk aesthetic, it is also the first of a trilogy. Naturally. Perhaps more importantly, while it has its considerable flaws, it’s a fair bit more enjoyable than most of the summer blockbusters that came out of the States in the last few months.
Based (very, very) loosely on the story of Yang Luchan, the inventor of Tai Chi, the plot involves Lu Chuan (Yuan Xiaochao), known since birth as The Freak due to an odd, horn-like bump that when touched turns him for a brief period into a martial arts fiend, but drains his lifespan a little bit each time. In search of a cure, he leaves his masters to travel to Chen Village, to learn the Chen style of kung-fu, but the villagers are forbidden to teach their skills to outsiders, and the townspeople, including Yuniang (Angelababy), fight him away. But Lu Chaun is persistent, and with the help of a mysterious labourer (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) persists, and a good thing too, as Yuniang’s spurned fiancé, who’s been trying to convince the town to welcome the railroad, is on the way with an almighty power that could destroy the village forever.
In other words, it’s not so different from your average kung fu flick, albeit with some western elements thrown in and a Victorian steampunk aesthetic. But it differs from the competition in a number of ways. For one, it looks really good. Not much has been spared in terms of production value (likely helped by making three for the price of one). The sets and costumes are gorgeous, and the cinematography, courtesy of “Infernal Affairs” DoP Yiu-Fai Lai, is equally so. Fung throws every stylistic trick in the book – shutter speeds, filters, a silent film homage, you name it – at the film, and while you sometimes wish he’d let the action play out in long shot, it generally gives the film some zip and punch.
But perhaps more importantly, it’s very enjoyable, and about as much fun as we’ve had with the genre for a long time. “300” seems to have been something of an inspiration for Fung, but “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” even more so, with transitions, partly-animated sequences and witty on-screen graphics (including a life-bar) that seem to owe a lot to Edgar Wright’s pop-art masterpiece. In fact, in some ways, Fung takes the film even further across the fourth wall – characters are introduced by captions explaining not just the character name, but also the actor, and what they’re best known from. It’s taken to particularly giddy, absurd heights when a cameo from Andrew Lau, director of “Infernal Affairs,” is accompanied by a title explaining that he’s Andrew Lau, director of “Infernal Affairs.”
As such, the film is playful and inventive enough that you forgive it most of its shortcomings, of which there are several. A tragic romance between Yuniang’s fiancé (Eddie Peng) and a Western henchwoman is both narratively odd (why would we be expected to sympathise with the villains here?) and terribly performed, mainly because Fung decides to play it out in English. And the nature of the film being part of a trilogy (a trailer for part 2, which adds Peter Stormare, of all people, to the cast in the credits) means that all kinds of loose ends are left hanging, and the film concludes in irritatingly abrupt and unsatisfying manner.
But for the part, it’s a great watch, and, for all its silliness, a kind of live-action “Kung Fu Panda,” or a bigger budget version of a Stephen Chow film. The fights (choreographed by the great Sammo Hung) are varied and exciting, and the film is a genuine pleasure to look at most of the time. It won’t linger in the mind longer than it takes for the credits to roll, but it’s a lot of fun while it lasts, and we’re genuinely looking forward to part 2 at this point. [B-]