The recent documentary Films Of Fury noted that when Kung Fu Panda was released a few years back, it rattled the Hong Kong movie industry, as some wondered how such an internationally successful, high-quality martial-arts movie could come out of Hollywood, not China. If that story is true, it may explain why there have been so many fresh, stylish, offbeat action films emerging from the East over the past few years. The latest is Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi Zero, starring Yuan Xiaochao as a bumbling kung-fu prodigy who moves to a remote village renowned for its special “Chen-style” technique, named for a mysterious master who by law is forbidden to teach his methods to outsiders. Meanwhile, Chen’s daughter, Angelababy, is dealing with a romantic suitor who’s returned from the West with plans to build a railroad through Chen’s village. And Yuan is worried because the large bump on his head—the one that marks him as a potential kung-fu master—is turning black, and may soon kill him if he doesn’t live up to his potential.
Story-wise, Tai Chi Zero is classic historical-kung-fu-epic fare, all about the development of certain philosophical disciplines, and about a culture in transition as the colonialists make inroads. But style is where this movie makes its mark. Fung is making a martial-arts movie for the Internet age. His fight sequences (choreographed by the legendary Sammo Hung) have additional videogame-style graphics, showing angles of attack; rather than putting the cast’s names in the opening credits, Fung introduces them whenever they show up in the movie, and adds the actors’ best-known credits next to their names. It’s all very postmodern and flashy—at times to a fault. After the first half hour or so, the bells and whistles tend to distract from the action more than enhance it. Nevertheless, the story’s fundamentals remain solid, and the battle between the village of kung-fu experts and an army of 19th century technophiles is so cleverly staged and exciting that the inevitable sequel (already in the works) will be welcome, as will any future martial-arts movies that Tai Chi Zero may inspire.