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Tai Chi Zero (2012), the dawn of a kung fu steam punk trilogy

February 23, 2013

MY CALL:  This genre-melder opens an Asian kung fu adventure trilogy with strong elements of humor, Hong Kong theater stunts and a videogame feel.  Anyone tired of “the same old…” whatever should give this a shot!  IF YOU LIKE THIS WATCH:  Other genre-melders sharing some of these elements and a strong sense of style include Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (2005), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), The Man with the Iron Fists (2012), The Warrior’s Way (2010), Bunraku (2010) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004).

During a playful flashback, we learn that Lu Chan was born with a small horn-like growth on his head recognized by a kung fu master as the crown of three blossoms, prophesying that he will one day become a great kung fu master.  This master adopts Lu Chan after the death of his mother (Shu Qi; The Eye 2, The Transporter).

This “freak” side of our hero makes little appearance in this film, part 1 of the Tai Chi Trilogy.

Years later we find the young Yang Lu Chan (action newcomer Yuan Xiaochao) on the battlefield.  He seems to have a gentle soul.  However, “the freak” (as he is called) is capable of becoming a demon-eyed, super-charged menace.  Master Dong (Siu-Lung Leung; Kung Fu Hustle) warns Lu Chan that if he does not learn internal kung fu from Master Chen (Tony Leung Ka Fai; Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame), that he will soon deplete his inner energy and die.  Not a fan of this prognosis, Lu Chan seeks Master Chen.

However, Master Chen refuses to teach his Chen style kung fu to an outsider–it’s actually a village law.  As Lu Chan persists, he is thwarted by the Chen style-savvy locals often in funny fight scenes.  In fact, humor is a major, frequent component in this kung fu adventure.

Lu Chan’s dedication earns him the admiration of many villagers, but it is when he helps save the village from a giant, steampunk, iron menace and teaming British soldiers that he earns acceptance by the villagers, and the love of one in particular.

There are strong, oddly-toned humorous elements in this stylistic genre-melder.  Very dramatically scored, this movie is filmed beautifully and utilizes many unique, artistic effects, including a comicbook-style animated short mixed with live footage during the opening credits.  The inclusion of stempunk elements and written captions identifying objects, landmarks, characters and techniques creates a strong fantasy videogame feel as well.

The fighting includes some well-timed slow-motion in the style of 300 as well as some classic overuse of wire stunts.  Strong female characters capable of humor and handling themselves physically–but not at the expense of their emotional vulnerability or loving nature–contribute to a more positive tone as well, providing more of an adventure movie experience than a martial arts action movie.

This entire movie is about Lu Chan trying to learn Chen style kung fu and when the movie is over, he still hasn’t.  During the credits we see a “preview” of sorts to Tai Chi Hero, the second movie of the Tai Chi trilogy, in which the British invasion on Master Chen’s village escalates.

So stay tuned for the next installment.

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