A few weeks ago, my roommates and I were browsing Netflix and found a movie called Tai Chi Hero, and two things became abundantly clear within the first 5 minutes of watching the movie:
- Steampunk tech meets rural China meets kung fu is kind of awesome, in a “WTF I can’t even HOW” way.
- This was a sequel to another movie, and if the brief bits we saw in the credits were anything to go by, we desperately needed to see the first one.
And then my roommates started watching Arrow instead and the crazy steampunk Chinese movie was put away.
Then, last week, my roommates were browsing Netflix yet again, looking for something to watch (probably because they go through Netflix TV shows like an allergy sufferer through tissues), and I spotted Tai Chi Zero on one of the lists as they were flipping through.
“Hey wait! Isn’t that the steampunk Chinese movie we saw a couple of weeks ago?” I asked.
“No,” said my roommate, Jon. “It’s the first one; that one we saw was the sequel.”
“PUT IT ON.” (I was supposed to be working on my NaNo word count. I didn’t care.)
“Well, I guess we can watch the first few minutes…”
In case you’re wondering, “the first few minutes” actually ended up being “the entire damn thing AND THEN THE SECOND ONE,” because apparently a steampunk kung fu movie set in turn-of-the-century China is something that’s been missing in my life.
It was spectacular. And I don’t mean that in a “it was so bad it’s good” kind of way; I mean that in a “this was legitimately awesome” kind of way.
So here’s the story:
Our hero, Lu Chan, is a skilled kung fu fighter within a rebel force called the Divine Truth Cult, which has been fighting against the Chinese emperor. Lu Chan was born with a horn on his head called “Three Blossoms on the Crown,” which gives him unbelievable ferocity, power, and fighting skill whenever it’s hit. However, each time Lu Chan uses “Three Blossoms on the Crown,” the horn darkens and his life shortens. Whenever the horn turns completely black, he’ll die.
A doctor for the Divine Truth Cult (who I swear is like a Chinese version of Bones McCoy) tells Lu Chan that in order to live, he must travel to Chen Village and learn “internal kung fu,” or Chen-style kung fu. The general of the Divine Truth Cult forbids it, but when their regiment is attacked and most everyone is killed, Lu Chan sets off in search of Chen Village.
It’s like the people behind the movie went “Holy shit! We have a budget? LET’S DO THIS THING.” and then went balls-to-the-wall with EVERYTHING.
We need to show the hero’s backstory? Let’s do it in full-out silent film format!
Doing a journey sequence during the opening credits? Let’s make it COMPLETELY ANIMATED and then have the hero ride a giant fish. And then stab it in the head. BECAUSE REASONS.
Introducing actors? Instead of just putting their name on the screen, let’s ADVERTISE IT, BABY. Whenever a new character shows up, freeze-frame of them with quick info about what else the actor’s done! (Okay, it sounds corny, but it was actually really cool, especially when you’re like “Holy crap, that kid’s a kung fu champion? That guy was a stunt coordinator for Jackie Chan? THAT’S AWESOME.”)
Those are just a couple examples of the over-the-top stylistic choices that pepper this film. But the thing is, they worked with the movie itself. They hit the tone just right, and it never detracted from the story or the characters at all.
In fact, the characters were all fairly fantastic, too. Yu Niang, the main female character, is sweet and gorgeous and badass. She’s so obviously in love with her fiancé at the beginning of the film, and she’s also a very skilled, clever master of the Chen-style kung fu. This girl is not a wilting flower or a passive prize for the hero; she’s an active participant in the story and the protection of her community.
(Considering the last Asian movie I saw had a female character so two-dimensional she was scarcely better than a cardboard cutout, I wanted to cheer for Yu Niang every time she was on the screen.)
And while Lu Chan acts like a fool, he’s still very loyal and determined and almost perpetually upbeat, even when he’s been beaten in a fight. (Heck, even when he’s won in a fight—his reaction to the end of his fight with Brother Tofu is just adorable.) He’s like a giant puppy dog and you just can’t help but love him.
Plus, Tai Chi Zero has one of the better supervillain backstories I’ve seen. You understand the guy, you feel sorry for him, and you know why he makes the decisions he does even if they’re terrible decisions. I alternated between wanting to slap him and wanting to hug him.
“Spectacular” is the best word to describe this movie because it is, in fact, a spectacle. The fight choreography, the cinematography (the camera shots are great), the video-game-like visual touches, the steampunk-styled technology: it’s a visual feast.
However, it’s supported by an actual, decent story with actual, decent characters. Yes, the plot itself may be pretty much what you’d expect from a kung fu movie about village traditions vs. encroaching modern technology, but the absolute joy and energy that apparently went into making this one elevates it into a realm of movie-watching fun.
If you like movies like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, if the words “kung fu” and “steampunk” make you light up like a Christmas tree, then get thee to Netflix and watch Tai Chi Zero immediately. And I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 🙂