Tai Chi 0 (US - BD RA)
Gabe checks out the latest effects-heavy martial-arts genre hybrid from China...
An uncommonly gifted child named Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) is born with a fleshy abnormality on his forehead that holds tremendous power. After being teased as the town fool, his mother spurs him to practice martial arts and, following her wishes, Lu Chan travels the distance to the legendary Chen Village to learn Tai Chi. However, it is forbidden for a villager to disclose the practice to an outsider. After being spurned and defeated by the beautiful Chen Yunia (Angelababy), Lu Chan is more determined than to ever to master the art and seeks out Yunia’s father, the mysterious Master Chen. Meanwhile, a frightening steam-powered machine rolls into the village, led by Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng), a childhood friend of Yunia. Zijing has bribed government officials to permit him to build a railway that will run straight through the village without discussing it with the villagers themselves.
It’s hard to not be skeptical about high-concept, effects-driven Chinese blockbusters these days. Too many of these films are defined by a beautiful and ultimately empty spectacle. It’s also hard not to be suspicious of anything jumping on the ‘steampunk’ bandwagon. Steampunk, which is undoubtedly a cool aesthetic, is dangerously close to reaching critical mass. When mainstream Hollywood picks up on a niche market craze, it is officially mainstream. When non-western Hollywood equivalents pick it up, it’s usually verging on overexposure. Tai Chi 0 is ultimately a mash-up movie that blends different visual genres – and mash-ups are trendy right now. Trendy is scary. The fact that steampunk is already mash-up makes it something of a double mash-up. That’s a pretty bright red flag.
Writer/director Stephen Fung is probably best known in the west for his pretty face, which appears in super-hip, late-‘90s/early-‘00s movies, like Benny Chan’s Gen-X Cops and Gen-Y Cops. He started his second career as a (co-)writer/director on the Jackie Chan produced Enter the Phoenix in 2004. He followed this with his first martial arts movie, House of Fury, also produced by Chan (Jackie, not Benny), and a straight comedy, Jump, which was produced and written by Stephen Chow. Tai Chi 0 represents a sort of second coming-out party as writer/director, since it’s the first time he’s stepped out from under the shadow of superstars like Chan and Chow and acted as his own producer (along with actor buddy Daniel Wu, who also appears on-screen). Chan and Chow’s styles certainly inform Tai Chi 0’s comedic tones (the whole concept feels like a mix of Chow’s Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle), but Fung is taking more visual cues from Tsui Hark and Yuen Woo-ping (who he worked with on House of Fury). Action choreographer Sammo Hung also clearly had an impact, but Fung’s concept here is so deeply ingrained in mash-up and mixed media that his references are legion. Lu Chan’s back-story is told via a sepia-toned faux-silent film. The credits, character introductions, and some of the transition shots look like motion comics and cartoons. There are diagrams superimposed over some of the fight choreography and one montage is told via videogame graphics. The most directly referential thing here, however, is the way characters are introduced. Not content to simply still the frame and throw a character title onscreen (à la Guy Ritchie, though I’m sure someone else did it first), Fung also includes the actor’s name and, quite often, some of their most famous credits. It’s not actually funny, but it’s pretty unique.
Fung is, without a doubt, more interested in creating a succession of cool images than saying anything particularly important about the human condition. Or the state of the world. Or anything, really. The weak narrative sense is absolutely the film’s biggest problem, but it’s rarely a mess and is mercilessly easy to follow. After having my brain fried by Tsui Hark’s The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly, I was afraid modern Sino cinema was too much of a storytelling culture shock for me to ever keep up again. It’s good to know that giant, effects-heavy, area blockbusters are beyond sticking to basic genre tropes. Fung does have a habit of introducing more characters than he can juggle (he has nothing on Tsui and Jiang) and at the risk of his generally likeable lead character. Lu Chan is a martial arts comedy cliché – a wholly innocent, idiot savant – but he really is charming (thanks in no small part to Yuan Xiaochao, an Olympic javelin thrower making his acting debut here) and the movie is stronger when working from his point-of-view. The weakest and most extraneous character link is the subplot that attempts to humanize the villain via dialogue that would be embarrassing in the context of even a Harlequin romance. Something this arch really requires an arch villain, not a sad sack fumbling his way through unnecessary English language dialogue. Of course, the bigger problem is that Tai Chi 0 is really only half a movie – it was shot back-to-back with a sequel called Tai Chi Hero (get it?). This means that this first film is almost entirely set-up, with a cheeky ‘to be continued’ teaser in place of a proper climax.
China is taking its lead from Hollywood in terms of digital 3D releases and no blockbuster franchise appears to be safe. So it’s not surprising to announce that Tai Chi 0 was shot using the industry standard Red One MX and Red Epic digital 3D. This 2.35:1, 1080p transfer is only 2D, but is still a very impressive pin on Well Go USA’s lapel. This transfer is strongest in its utter clarity (to the detriment of some of the digital effects) and the intricacy of some of its more expansive wide shots. The foreground, close-up details are also quite impressive, but those backing vistas are amazingly sharp with only minor shimmering effects and an occasional edge halo. The less focused backdrops suffer merely a blocking effect or two. The colour quality is vibrant and solid with the mixed-media approach producing something of an eclectic, poppy palette for the first 20-30 minutes. Once Lu Chan and the steampunk engine arrives in town, however, things go a little, well, orange and teal. It seems that Red cameras and 3D aren’t the only thing being successfully outsourced to China from Hollywood. The O&Tness is occasionally broken up by a blue sky, green trees, or red clothing, but, on average, it’s pretty prevalent. Black levels are solid overall, though they are occasionally perverted by leaking teal elements. There are a few particularly tricky panning shots that have issues with jittering effects (as if there are frames missing). I don’t think these are the fault of the transfer, however, but an unfortunate oversight on the part of the film’s original special effects artists, since these shots appear to be almost entirely digitally created and the physical tracking shots are not similarly affected.
Tai Chi 0 comes fitted with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Mandarin and dubbed English options. Because dubbing is evil in cases like these, this review pertains only to the Mandarin track. This is a crisp and clean track, but it suffers from the same minor issues I’ve had with quite a few recent Chinese releases (not just from Well Go USA). The main issue is the uncanny dialogue quality. The lip-sync is usually correct, but the tone and volume levels of the voices is oddly consistent, as if it has been put together in post. Maybe this is my imagination or maybe it’s a side-effect of releasing the film in a Cantonese dub. The second issue is that the majority of the effects work, though well-represented throughout the stereo and surround channels, is pretty thin in terms of layers. Even the early sequences featuring an entire army in battle are spiked with noise, rather than overwhelmed by it. The major exceptions to this rule are any sequences featuring the big, scary steam tank, especially those that take place within its intricate, spinning and hissing inter-workings. These scenes are nicely layered and full-bodied with plenty directional movement and LFE enhancement. Katsunori Ishida’s score matches the film’s multi-media approach with a mix of musical genres. The more traditionally symphonic stuff is pretty unimpressive, due to its synthesized qualities and low volume on the track, but the driving electronica and whimsical power metal (complete with lyrics) feature plenty of stereo enhancement and crunchy bass.
The brief extras begin with a look Behind the Zens (5:40, SD), which is a straight ahead, sales piece EPK (in two parts) including footage from the film, behind the scenes footage (which definitely shows Sammo Hung sitting in a director’s chair), and fluffy interviews with the cast and crew, each of which get about a sentence in edgewise. The only other extras are a music video, a trailer, and trailers for other Well Go USA releases.
Fears that Tai Chi 0 would be completely form over function are entirely founded, but Stephen Fung’s film is still quite charming. Fung’s first time out of the shadow of Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow proves he’s got technical chops; he just needs some help focusing his screenplay. The bigger problem is that this movie is really a long trailer for a sequel, Tai Chi Hero. Perhaps that one will be more rounded, now that the back-story is out of the way. Some viewers might be disappointed that this Blu-ray release doesn’t include a 3D version, but the image quality is so fantastic it’s really hard to realistically complain. The DTS-HD MA soundtrack is a bit thin and extras are brief.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 22nd January 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Mandarin and English Dub, Dolby Digital 2.0 Mandarin and English Dub
Easter Egg: No
Director: Stephen Fung
Cast: Yuan Xiaochao, Angelababy, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Eddie Peng, Qi Shu, Daniel Wu
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy and Romance
Length: 95 minutes
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