‘Tai Chi Zero’; or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The West
Directed by Stephen Fung
Written by Kuo-fu Chen, Cheng Hsiao-tse and Zhang Jialu
If you find yourself at the cinema, and you happen to have a fistful of quarters, then, by all means, go and see a discount matinee of Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi Zero. But if for whatever reason you can’t, if the nickelodeon is inexplicably full, the tickets sold out, or if you’re just tired of watching yet another Chinese kung fu extravaganza, then take your quarters to the theatre arcade. Deposit the necessary amount of credits into the machine, and treat yourself to an action-packed game of Street Fighter. You won’t miss a thing.
However, if you do decide to see the movie, for one reason or another, you’ll be thrust into the life of Yang Luchuan (played by Yuan Xiaochao, a martial arts gold medalist at the 2006 Asian Games). We pick up his story amidst an all-out war, with Yang singlehandedly dismantling the opposition. Punches land, bodies fly; Yang seems to be unstoppable, superhuman even.
In the middle of the frenetic fisticuff, we are treated to a flashback sequence, were we see how, as a child, Yang was born with a fleshy abnormality on his forehead. He’s ridiculed for his deformity, but Yang soon discovers that his temporal growth gives him special powers; powers that give him exceptional fighting ability, but also threaten to slowly drain away his life force (PS3 owners will immediately find a parallel to the game Heavenly Sword).
We are flashed back into the battle, and after it’s concluded, Yang submits to the final wishes of his late mother (Shu Qi) and travels to the village of Chen to learn tai chi, which is the only way of stymieing his affliction. Determined to become a disciple of the town’s legendary master, Yang is instead welcomed with hostility from the villagers.
Amongst the hostile is the beautiful daughter of the tai chi master, Yuniang (Angelababy), and her arranged fiancé Zijing (Eddie Peng), an anglophile toff in a top hat. Zijing’s obsession with modernizing the rural town (a.k.a ‘white’ man’s burden) soon causes problems of the mechanical sort, leading Yang and Zijing to band together and stop him.
For all the anti-West didactics in the film, Mr. Fung and his writers are seemingly oblivious to the irony that’s inherent in Tai Chi Zero. The characters in the movie will deride the influence of foreigners and the threat of their new technologies, but the film itself is heavily influenced by the videogame aesthetic; which is, funny enough, a product of new technology. Furthermore, the movie has an abundance of steam-punk-inspired set pieces, as well as having a heavy metal musical score (both of which are Western in origin). Ironic isn’t it?
That aside, Tai Chi Zero is full of eye-popping info-graphics and screen cluttering pop art visuals, obviously trying to capture the same look and feel of something like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. However, what works in the latter doesn’t necessarily do quite as well in the former.
In Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, director Edgar Wright uses this technique to capture the essence of his characters, the kids of the Konami Code generation. The visuals become a way of seeing into their identity, how they see the world, and the popular culture they inhabit.
In Tai Chi Zero, this same approach doesn’t work in the same way because the characters are all from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The visuals don’t add dimension to the principal cast in any meaningful way, and only serves as flashy gimmick to conciliate and distract the viewer from the movie’s fragile script. It does for a while, but sooner or later we come to realize that Mr. Fung et al took the videogame model too literally, and not in a complimentary way.
Instead of having a clear narrative direction (like defeating seven evil exes, for example), Tai Chi Zero is inundated with a series of impromptu mission objectives that usually has Yang infiltrating a certain place or fighting off a group of adversaries. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but the movie has an awful habit of showing the audience exactly how the objective is to be completed, does it, and moves on to the next objective where the movie will repeat the process. Where’s the fun in watching that?
Made by the creators of Detective Dee, Tai Chi Zero is a yet another big budget kung fu film with more emphasis on spectacle than story. With flat and one dimensional characters, it lacks a certain heart, a certain je ne sais quoi – call it the Stephen Chow touch. The story’s thrown together nature can be excused by the fact that the movie is the first of a trilogy, where, hopefully, the loose ends will finally be tied together. Until then, it’s best if you don’t “insert coin to continue”, and, instead, take it to that aforementioned arcade. You won’t miss a thing.
– Justin Li