Film Review: Tai Chi Zero

Sprawling martial-arts adventure pits Chinese villagers against a menacing railroad. First in a planned trilogy is a mash-up of old and new.

Hyped as a steampunk kung fu movie that revolutionizes the genre, Tai Chi Zero spends most of its time spinning its wheels. Short on action and originality, and criminally low on energy, the film will gain some attention for its videogame graphics and heavy-metal interludes. But as far as escapist Asian fare goes, this is a pretty poor example.

In the mid-Qing dynasty, soldiers from the Divine Truth cult attack government forces. Divine Truth's secret weapon is Lu Chan (real-life martial-arts champion Jayden Yuan), whose fighting skills go into hyperdrive whenever someone punches a wart on his head.
A doctor warns Lu Chan that the wart, known as "Three Blossoms on the Crown," will kill him unless he learns internal kung fu, a style of fighting used in the remote village of Chen. But it's against the law to teach the Chen style to outsiders. Lu Chan appeals to the beautiful Yuniang (Angelababy) for help, only to receive a thrashing. Other villagers do the same. Even little girls can beat him up. Only the mysterious "Uncle Laborer" (Tony Leung Ka Fai) is willing to help. Through hints and clues, Uncle shows Lu Chan how to master Chen kung fu.

When Yuniang's lover Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) reveals plans to raze the village for a new railroad line, Lu Chan joins Yuniang to fight him. Peasants armed with vegetables take on soldiers with rifles as Lu Chan and Yuniang try to sabotage a monstrous steam engine threatening the village.

Tai Chi Zero comes to an abrupt halt with several loose ends outstanding—including a hero in a coma—followed by an old-fashioned coming-attractions trailer for the sequel Tai Chi Hero (due here in early 2013). The trailer, complete with spinning graphics and booming sound effects, is one of several gimmicks director Stephen Fung uses to update the genre.

Some of Fung's tricks are effective; others have a desperate air to them. (Fifteen minutes into the film, he's still showing jokey credits.) The gags can't disguise the fact that this is martial-arts plotting at its most basic, without the sense of history, social context or wildly imaginative comedy of a film like Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle.

What's worse, the action has been shot and edited into a meaningless blur—perhaps because few of the participants have been trained in martial arts. It's even hard to judge Jayden Chan's skills. Making his film debut, Chan looks fit enough, but his stunts rely too much on wirework and CGI. As an actor, he has zero screen presence.

Tai Chi Zero has been designed for viewers who have never seen a kung fu movie, but still think the genre is something to laugh at. With its cheap jokes, poorly filmed action and pointless stabs at contemporary relevance, the film is not likely to win any converts.