Monday, October 29, 2012

movie review: tai chi hero / 太极2

My short review on twitter immediately after seeing Tai Chi Hero:
[text of tweet: love flying machines & kung fu machines; sideeye at sudden & unexpected sideline of ladies; enjoyed the humour.]
The longer review (some spoilers):

Tai Chi Hero follows immediately on from Tai Chi 0, and has been released in China (and in Australia) with only a month between. It's easy to view them as one long movie, but it's easy to see where the original rumours of a trilogy would have come from. It's a duology with an epic story to tell, and just not enough time.

In Tai Chi 0, Yang Lu Chan ("the freak") comes to Chen Village to learn the Chen family style of Kung Fu. Lu Chan has been born with a natural advantage, the "Three Blossoms Horn" which both gives him awesome powers and is slowly killing him, hence his need to learn the more even Chen family style. The problem is that Chen family style is only taught to members of the Chen family, and Lu Chan is desperate enough to try anything to learn this style.

Tai Chi 0 features lots of fun action, videogame style sequencing and introductions, and lots of elements that I loved (including great machines and action sequences), as well as some awesome characters such as Yu Niang, who is not only the village apothecary but also completely stone fierce; brother Tofu; and the overly dramatic Fang Zijing, a family member with the wrong name who has never been allowed to learn the Chen family style.

In Tai Chi Hero, we are introduced to the remaining characters, some who have been given elevated importance in the trailer and some who weren't really introduced at all. The Inventor and the Silent Wife turn up, and I really hope that the Silent Wife's parts were originally there but later cut because otherwise what we have is a mysterious sidelining of the ladies, after they were all so awesome in the previous instalment. Yu Niang, who was so amazing in Tai Chi 0, and becomes Lu Chan's teacher in this instalment, is later resigned to standing on the sidelines as Lu Chan battles to prove that they are truly from the Chen family. This is obviously done for story purposes - it is, after all, the story of how Lu Chan becomes one with the yin and yang and with himself, therefore it must be he who demonstrates the style for the story - but Yu Niang, as daughter of the Chen Grandmaster, is surely the more logical demonstrator here? And the Silent Wife has so much potential, does some excellent kung fu, and then runs around looking sad and being threatened with torture. As this follows on from British agent Claire Heathrow's death in Tai Chi 0, which motivates Fang Zijing to become Truly Evil, it is unfortunate.

The switches between English and Mandarin are fun but sadly lacking. Mandy Lieu, as Claire Heathrow, is great in Mandarin but not so much in English. Peter Stormare turns up as another agent of the British East India Company and chews the scenery in both English and Mandarin. Eddie Peng (as Fang Zijing) is dramatic in English and unsympathetic in Mandarin.

It's not all criticisms. In fact, it's barely any criticisms, really, I criticise because I care. Tai Chi Hero continues to be a great (if heavy-handed) look at the impact of Western influence and modernisation in China at the turn of the century, and how that conflicted and contrasted with the desire to keep things as they are, for whatever reason and by whatever means necessary. It's a look at government corruption and the interpretation of history. I loved big brother, the inventor, who wanted to revolutionise China and his family by taking western machinery and ideas and developing it to take advantage of their best assets - in the Chen family's case, by making their kung fu even better. The revelation of his kung fu-aiding machine vest was probably the greatest moment of the film for me, a commentary on modernisation and adaptability and family and tradition and being Chinese in a five minute sequence. 

I really loved the moment when we found out why the movies are called Tai Chi X; and every moment featuring the Prince.

This instalment also continued with the humour and self-reflection, and I'm sorry to tell you that the translations didn't manage to capture all of the humour in the dialogue, so if you thought it was funny and you don't speak Mandarin, let me assure you that it was actually (intentionally) even more hilarious.

I loved it, I will definitely own this one, and I hope this new-ish trend of Chinese kung-fu steampunk movies continues. I just wish all of them had awesome ladies, is that too much to ask?

Other reviews: Margaret and David review Tai Chi 0 and Margaret interviews Kuo-Fu Chen and Tony Leung Ka-Fai*; Ay-Leen the Peacemaker reviews Tai Chi 0 at Tor; James Marsh at Twitch Films reviews Tai Chi Hero; an article on how it's a return to more traditional WuXia and it's a box office success for doing so (Zh).

*David and Margaret are Australia's favourite movie reviewers. Margaret's earrings have a Facebook page and my favourite Facebook page ever is called "When David Stratton from At the Movies gets shirty about handheld cameras." I love them. A lot.

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