February Fisticuffs: Tai Chi Zero (2012)



It’s February and everything sucks right now, so it’s time to unwind with February Fisticuffs – a punchy look at some of the best, worst and most average boxing, kung fu and martial arts movies.

Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi Zero is a wild one. The 2012 Chinese martial arts film is about as loud and flashy as it gets, with constant motion flooding the screen with CGI special effects, steampunk-related costumes, wire work and splashes of video game-style text. That Fung jams so much stuff into what is essentially a traditional kung fu epic is kind of a wonder.

But as action-packed as Tai Chi Zero is, it’s also remarkably vacant. It does function as a piece of brattish kitsch, complete with character introductions that showcase the actors as they appear on screen and a health bar that loiters over the villain as the final drops of red drain away. And in an ADHD sense, it almost works.

Wushu champion Jayden Yuan makes his acting debut as Yang Lu Chan, a young man born with an affliction known as “Three Blossoms on the Crown.” This manifests as a sort of horn on his head, which activates a range of special powers if hit. Lu Chan wants to learn the Chen style of tai chi, so he heads to the Chen village in hopes of receiving lessons. The family guards its secret well.

Lu Chan lingers as other events take place. Yu Niang (Angelababy) is the daughter of the Chen clan. She’s in love with Fang Zi Jing (Eddie Peng), who is trying to bring western technology to the village. He is aggrieved because he wasn’t allowed to learn kung fu, so he comes back with a machine and a girl named Claire (Mandy Lieu) to prove his point. All hell breaks loose, etc.

Tai Chi Zero has a lot going for it, at least on paper. There’s a whole steampunk element as Fang Zi Jing and Claire try to overrun the archaic hamlet with railroad technology. The machine itself, a monstrosity known as Troy, doesn’t factor in as much as it should but it does cut an impressive visage.

Early scenes involving a disappointed Fang Zi Jing do well to underscore the Chen village’s stance toward foreigners and outside technology. They are wary of what’s coming and that enrages the antagonist to the point that he nearly steams through his top hat. It’s no wonder Claire seems more impressive. She gets him, man.

It’s also interesting to see how Lu Chan goes through the same trials as Fang Zi Jing, except he doesn’t have the personal connections of the villain. Lu Chan’s persistence keeps him coming back to the Chen village, even as he gets his ass kicked by residents young and old. A scene in which he fights a little girl is amusing.

Unfortunately, Fung’s mounting of Tai Chi Zero leaves a lot to be desired. Initially, the embellishments are cute and the ostentation gets by on sugary fumes. But it doesn’t take long for all the graphics and nonsense to run interference, shoving the noise to the “okay, enough already” zone. Drawing little diagrams of where Yu Niang plants her feet may seem neat at first, but it’s overdone in a hurry.

Fung seems to be going for a Stephen Chow-influenced epic, but movies like Kung Fu Hustle and Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons are mad without sinking into panicky ploys. It’s a shame, as Tai Chi Zero doesn’t need all the extra bluster to get by. But in fairness, a late tribute to Fruit Ninja does hit the mark.


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