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Popular actor turned writer/director Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi 0 was not quite the revelation that its Girl with the Dragon Tattoo-inspired trailers tried to convince us it was. The final product was a mostly entertaining mixed-bag, including a charming central character (played by Yuan Xiaochao, an ex-Olympic javelin thrower), an easy to follow and occasionally funny storyline (the antidote to so many recent effects-heavy Chinese releases), and some well-edited, well-choreographed action sequences (by Sammo Hung). It was also a pretty uninvolving practice in style over substance and featured some incredibly weak, ridiculously melodramatic villains. Likely the most frustrating aspect of the entire film, however, was the fact that the North American release was not advertised as the first part of a two-movie saga. Sure, a simple check of the film’s IMDB or Wikipedia pages reveals that it was made as part of an incomplete story, but I’m not sure the majority of folks that watched it were plenty pissed when the film ended without a resolution.

Tai Chi Hero
No worries, though – the sequel, Tai Chi Hero (get it?) is here and we can finally learn how the story ends. Oh, wait, never mind, it turns out that these movies are now a trilogy. Sigh. So, what does this middle chapter have in store, you ask? Well, after a well-cut reminder of previous attempts (amazing how you can fit the gist of an entire movie into about a minute), we learn that Lu Chan (Jayden Yuan) is still trying to find his place in Chen Village – the legendary town where everyone is a martial arts master. Chen-style Tai Chi is also still forbidden to outsiders, but since he helped save the town from a frightening, steam-powered war machine, Chen Yu Niang (Angelababy), the beautiful daughter of Grandmaster Chen (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), has agreed to marry Lu Chan, bringing him into the family. Sadly, despite what seemed to be a genuine romantic connection in the last movie, the marriage is only a formality. Meanwhile, Chen Village still stands in the shadow of danger. The prodigal brother, Chen You Zhi (Di Wu), returns and begins implicating Lu Chan as the cause of a curse on the town and Yuniang’s scorned fiancée, Zi Jeng (Eddie Peng), who survived the last film, but lost his second-choice love interest, has an appetite for revenge.

One would assume that Tai Chi 0 was a means of getting the pesky back-story out of the way to make room for a ‘more is more’ action spectacle, but it is quickly apparent that Fung and his writing staff still have a lot of plot to trudge through and even more characters to introduce. Even seeing the first film relatively recently and being prepped by the credit sequence, I quickly found myself lost in wholly unnecessary and convoluted new information. It takes Fung about 20 minutes to even introduce all of his key villains, which is especially ridiculous, considering how much of that time is spent reiterating things from the first film. Our hero somehow finds himself in almost the exact same place he was at the beginning of the first film, as if none of his even modest growth counted. Fung begins to spin his universe into something as busy as Lord of the Rings and, unfortunately, he just isn’t up to the Peter Jackson-level task of unveiling so much information from so many different characters and locals. This makes for a very uncomfortable first act. In fact, it feels like the movie doesn’t really start until well into the second act, when a big battle sequence ups the stakes and separates some of our heroes from each other. The latter half of the film unspools much more efficiently, but there’s an overriding sense of too little, too late by the time things finally come together.

Tai Chi Hero
Tai Chi 0 had definitively strong visuals that made the tired ‘steampunk’ aesthetic look surprisingly fresh by blending it with traditional period-set wu xia imagery. Fung overdid the multi-media approach a bit, but, when striving for consistency, managed to pull off some arresting imagery. Once again, the director mixes modern cartoon/comic book aesthetics in with his period-appropriate design (he replays the video game bit from the first film to amusing effect), though he doesn’t lean on this brand of imagery nearly as often. This sequel does up the ante on martial arts superpowers and clockwork/steam-powered machinery, though, again, there aren’t necessarily more on-screen antics, just more aggressive ones. The imagery does have more thematic purpose here than it did in the last film, as the relationship between traditional martial arts and mechanical weaponry is complicated via You Zhi’s arrival. Though he begins the film as another technologically endowed villain (a pretty effective one at that), he grows into an ally that uses his new world knowhow to fight the good fight against the evil colonists. Hung’s choreography/action direction is as good as it ever was (the restaurant fight is among his better wire-work achievements) and Fung doesn’t take chances with over-editing or unnecessarily shaky camera moves, but he does effectively ruin the coolest battle sequence with really unattractively blurry low frame-rates.

Tai Chi Hero

Video


Like its predecessor, Tai Chi Hero was shot for digital 3D release (3D continues to be popular in China as interest wanes here in the United States) using Red cameras (no specifics on the IMDB page, but they’re likely Red One MX and/or Red Epic). The image quality of this 2.35:1, 1080p release more or less matches Well Go USA’s Tai Chi 0 release. The whole film looks very, very digital. There are few attempts at recreating the feel of film here; rather, gradations are softened to a point that they practically glow and contrast levels are tweaked about as moderately as possible without losing dynamic range. Fine details and patterns are appropriately complex, but they just aren’t as texturally aggressive as other similar films. The colour palette is less brown this time around and the muted orange and teal elements are dialed back as well. Still, the colours are largely artificial looking in their shade and hue consistency, which is a problem for the film, not this transfer. Well Go USA maintains a general quality standard here, but does step back a tiny bit in terms of compression noise compared to some of their other new releases. Edge enhancement rears its head at a steady rate where more complex patterns are concerned (the snow-set sequences are especially halo-ridden). It’s not as thick as the problematic haloing on some of the studio’s earliest Blu-ray releases, but a noticeable uptake, nonetheless. There are also some minor issues with aliasing wiggles throughout these wider-shot details, though overall blocking noise has decreased since the previous release.

Tai Chi Hero

Audio


Tai Chi Hero comes fitted with original Mandarin and English dub tracks, both presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Like the video quality, the sound quality more or less matches the Tai Chi 0 Blu-ray – it’s big, busy, and heavily stylized – and, as per usual, I opted to listen to the original language track for the sake of review. An increase in super-powered fisticuffs and super-charged war machinery makes for an increase in overall peak volume and aggressive directional movement. Aural highlights include the presence of propeller-powered airplanes, which dip and dive throughout the speakers, and high calibre cannon firing, which explodes furiously dead-center after softly being fired from behind the viewer. The more subtle effects work best when silence and sound are being used for the sake of high dynamic ranges and most directional effects are devoted to big action moments – one exception being a giant iron bell that plays an important role early in the film, giving the sound designers a chance to radiate ringing effects throughout the stereo, surround and LFE channels. Once again, the film’s massive scope is often betrayed by the synthesized quality of the music’s orchestral moments. Smaller instrumentations, like a live-recorded string quartets, sound much richer and feature better volume balance, while the larger orchestrations often sound thin, artificial, and strangely low on the track. Even weirder is the fact that this isn’t a consistent complaint – there are moments where the music sounds like a recording of a real life orchestra and the music volume is pitched high enough to set it apart from the sound effects and dialogue. I don’t believe this is the track’s problem, though; just bad choices made during the original mixing process.

Extras


The extras begin with From Zero to Hero (60:00, SD), an elongated companion piece to the super-short featurette that accompanied Tai Chi Hero. Rather than a proper documentary, this is a series of EPK-style featurettes that cover the various filmmaking processes of both films (including a lot of footage from the first one) in a rather fluffy manner. It features interviews with Fung, producer Wang Shonglei, art director Tom Yip, writers Zhang Jia Lu (credited as Chia-lu Chang on IMDB) and Cheng Hsiao Tse, action director Sammo Hung (who, again, appears to have flat out directed the action sequences), cast members Angelababy, Eddie Peng, Daniel Wu, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Nikki Hsinying Hsieh, and Shen Si, and a couple of other crew members whose names weren’t subtitled for English speakers. The disc also features trailers for other Well Go USA releases.

Tai Chi Hero

Overall


Tai Chi Hero struggles a lot, but things eventually settle into place. The latter half of the film is well-made and features some great, Sammo Hung-directed martial arts action. Still, this only makes for about half a good film and, when its place as the second part of a trilogy is taken into consideration, that’s only about a sixth of a good movie. This chapter does end with a rather arresting final image and the promise of more Peter Stormare, who isn’t given nearly enough screentime here. Perhaps the final episode will end on a high note and someone can edit the trilogy into one long movie, minus the deluge of unneeded plotting found here. Well Go USA’s Blu-ray has some minor edge enhancement issues, but it’s comparable to the Tai Chi 0 release in overall A/V quality. It has more extras as well.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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