Tai Chi Zero is an eye-popping riff on Asian pop culture
Starring Yuan Xiaochao and Angelababy. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Rated PG.
You’d expect a movie called Tai Chi Zero to move very, very, very slowly, but Stephen Fung’s martial-arts comedy is kinetic even for this genre. The title refers to an explosive, if fuzzily explained “inner strength” fighting style mastered by all the residents of the isolated Chen Village—including the ones who haven’t hit kindergarten yet.
This is something the slightly hapless Yang Lu Chan (Wushu champ Yuan Xiaochao) discovers during multiple ass-kickings by the stranger-wary villagers. He’s been dispatched to learn Chen-style tai chi by battlefield physician Dr. Dong (settle down, you in the back row!). This was done partly because there’d be no story otherwise, and partly because Yang—known to the warrior cult to which he belongs as “the Freak”—has a weird little horn sticking out of his head. Punch it hard enough and Yang turns into a raging and extremely hazardous special effect.
But going into supernatural berserker mode in order to fight the Qing Dynasty is also fatally robbing Yang of his chi. By the time he ingratiates himself with the Chen villagers and eventually helps fend off a foreign railway line, Yang’s life force is almost spent—something we learn from the little video-game graphic that pops up at one point.
In a nutshell, this is Fung’s biggest contribution to the genre. Tai Chi Zero incorporates arcade game–style graphics and other wildly metareferential details into the mix, making it less of a film than one big, eye-popping riff on Asian pop culture in 2012. As such, it’s an oddly weightless affair, with or without the wire work.
There’s a steampunk element, too, represented by a monstrous tank that lays railroad track while it crushes everything in sight. The human element impresses more than the technical high jinks, mind you, particularly the stupidly gorgeous Angelababy as Yang’s highly dangerous love-interest or the great Tony Leung Ka Fai as her father, Master Chen.
But try telling that to the Comic-Con adrenaline junkies who’ll be lining up for this and its already-in-production sequel.
Watch the trailer for Tai Chi Zero.