Film Review: Tai Chi Hero

The second installment in a planned martial-arts trilogy mixes broad comedy and cartoonish action that will appeal to the genre's fans, though crossover potential seems limited.

Did you miss the Chinese-backed kung fu picture Tai Chi Zero during its brief American theatrical release last fall? Not to worry, the sequel Tai Chi Hero—which was filmed back-to-back with its predecessor—offers up a handy recap during the opening credits that's like the cinematic equivalent of the "Previously on" summary that precedes an episode of “Glee.” Tai Chi Hero isn't entirely dissimilar from that Fox series in other respects either; for one thing, it's deliberately, almost joyfully disconnected from reality, occupying a universe where logic and even physics very rarely applies. (How do those glee-club kids go back and forth so quickly from New York and Ohio, anyway?) And just as the narrative (such as it is) on “Glee” is frequently interrupted by elaborate musical numbers, the dramatic action in Tai Chi Hero often comes to a full stop so the audience can enjoy some actual action in the form of graceful, wire-fu enhanced battles choreographed by legendary stuntman (and occasional actor), Sammo Hung. It's like what Hong Kong action maestro John Woo used to imply whenever he referenced his formative love for song-and-dance spectacles: The gulf between musicals and martial-arts pictures isn't quite as wide as you might think.

Also like musicals (and “Glee,” for that matter), martial-arts movies have enjoyed periods of popular mainstream success stateside before turning back into niche genres. The most recent heyday for chopsocky action was probably the early ’00s, when Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon found that elusive nexus between the art house and the thousand-screen multiplex. Other, more modest hits followed—Zhang Yimou's Hero and Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle among them—but we've been in a fallow period for some time now, as these largely Hong Kong and China-made imports increasingly bypass theatres for VOD and DVD releases (as well as token limited theatrical runs) aimed directly at the target audience of pre-converted fans. Tai Chi Hero seems unlikely to change the current status quo, especially given that it lacks many of the elements (chief among them a grounded dramatic narrative) that made Crouching Tiger a crossover hit. Director Stephen Fung's liberal use of CGI tweaks may not entirely please more old-school martial-arts fans either—those viewers who prize the physicality of the performers over the grandness of the spectacle. Fung has cited steampunk science fiction and Japanese animation (specifically the films of Hayao Miyazaki) as a guiding influence on his vision and Tai Chi Hero is nothing if not a live-action cartoon, filled with visual flourishes and compositions that could have flowed out of an animator's pen.

Picking up the narrative from the closing minutes of Tai Chi Zero, Hero returns us to 19th-century China and our hero Lu Chan (Jayden Yuan), the strong, but simple-minded warrior who previously rescued his adopted hometown of Chen Village from a steam-powered monstrosity created by—who else?—Western industrialists with nefarious, profit-minded designs on the region. Having proved his worth in that fight, Lu is looked upon with slightly more respect by the rest of the townspeople, including Grandmaster Chen (Hong Kong cinema veteran Tony Leung Ka Fai—not to be confused with the equally illustrious Tony Leung Chiu Wai, star of In the Mood for Love) who marries him off to his skilled daughter Yuniang (Angelababy) in the hopes that she'll be able to make a real fighter out of him. She has to work fast, though, because the forces of capitalist evil haven't disappeared…they're just re-energizing their strength. An all-new enemy (played by Coen Brothers favorite Peter Stormare) is backing a campaign to reduce Chen Village to rubble and Lu Chan will once again be instrumental in saving the place. And who knows? He might even just help invent a whole new martial-arts discipline (hint: it's the one namechecked in the film's title) while doing it.

That synopsis is considerably more straightforward than the actual film, which merrily leaps around from scene to scene with a bare minimum of attention paid to narrative continuity. The breakneck pace, matched by the whiplash visuals, is fun for a while, but the lack of anything to hang onto—a character arc, a storyline or even a basic human emotion—takes its toll midway through when you realize the movie's half over and you have little to no investment in what's happening onscreen. If Miyazaki's films were as big an influence on Fung as he claims, he would have remembered that the animator works from the inside out, starting with the characters first and building the world around them from there. Tai Chi Hero does the reverse, tossing us into this steampunk version of China and then populating it with kooky but largely forgettable personalities. The action set-pieces—which, let's be honest, are the main attraction in the majority of marital-arts pictures—are a mixed bag as well, with several standout sequences (most notably Lu Chan's literal flight from a massive army with the aid of a gear-powered winged contraption, as well as the big climactic fight in a kitchen) punctuating more run-of-the-mill fisticuffs. Those who already have a taste for this fare may have their appetite satiated by Tai Chi Hero (and will probably seek out the planned third and final installment, Tai Chi Summit), but I, for one, was hoping for something heartier.