"Tai Chi 0" spends its 90-minute running time setting up the action, characters, and stakes of its sequel "Tai Chi Zero." Ultimately, this makes the charming and funny "0" the lopped off first half of a three hour martial arts comedy epic, a weird decision that might have doubled the chances for director Stephen Fung's film to rake it in at Hong Kong and mainland Chinese cinemas, but leaves this Blu-ray release from Well Go USA feel like only part of a movie.
It begins promisingly enough: martial arts prodigy Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) is afflicted with a massive "horn" on his forehead, which temporarily grants his supernatural skill at kicking butt, while also slowly killing him. He learns of the mysterious Chen village tucked away in the mountains whose inhabitants practice a style of martial arts that could potentially cure his affliction. The only problem: they don't teach outsiders and they're got problems of their own with a former inhabitant-turned-railroad representative/top hat and waistcoat enthusiast (Eddie Peng) attempting to dislocate the village for his employers.
As Lu Chan, Yuan plays the character as a little dim and a little sweet. The helpful titles throughout the movie tell us that he's also an Olympic wushu champion (were these in the Mandarin and Cantonese prints of the movie, because that would be interesting). We get a little bit of his backstory as a privileged young man shunned by his cruel father, ultimately ending up in the rebel army fighting the Emperor's army.
Hong Kong performers Tony Leung Ka Fai, Shu Qi, and pop singer/actress Angelbaby brighten things up in their roles, while Sammo Hung serves as stunt director. "Tai Chi 0" looks every bit like the big-budget, fun martial arts adventure it's advertised as. Actor-turned-director Stephen Fun peppers his cast with Hong Kong action film royalty while filling the screen with crazy titles and text overlays (think "Night Watch" meets "Scott Pilgrim" with lots of "Street Fighter IV"-styled titles) which almost distract from the problems with the way he and writer Chia-lu Chang have unfortunately structured their film.
Since Lu Chan's martial arts abilities are imitative (if he fights someone, he instantly knows their technique), we never see him develop in any appreciable way, making the character feel one-note. It doesn't help that Yuan isn't exactly a natural performer, nailing the martial arts aspect, but going very broad and bug-eyed with the comedy.
The railroad subplot crowds Lu Chan out of his own story ("Tai Chi 0" becomes the village's story in the back half), and efforts to create romantic tension between his character and Angelbaby's Yu Niang is lopsided since so that plot is dominated by a love triangle between her, Eddie Peng, and Mandy Lieu's Claire that's actually way more interesting. More problematic, the threat of the "real" villains don't really emerge until the final scene.
Additionally, can we retire the evil railroad plot forever? The railroad lot (white soldiers manning a steampunk monstrosity) are a broad lot but "Tai Chi 0" conflates the march of scientific progress with some kind of blandly evil Westernization.
And yet... and yet, we can kind of call "Tai Chi 0" a success, if only because the post-credits sequence, featuring clips from the sequel "Tai Chi Hero" promise more martial arts lunacy, Peter Stormare, and all of it in 3D. Let's see that movie (or better still, just combine it and this first one into the grand production it should have been).
Special features and presentation
"Tai Chi 0" is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Well Go USA.