So, a month or so after Tai Chi 0 hit cinemas, its sequel has arrived: Tai Chi Hero, filmed back-to-back with its predecessor on a shared budget. Accordingly, most of what Rhys says in his review of the first film holds true for this one: it’s a 3D action-comedy-adventure film with a steampunk feel to the art direction, solid action choreography from action legend Sammo Hung, and some modern CGI crammed in for today’s effects-hungry audience.
Note: there will be some unavoidable spoilers for the first film here (you’re reading a review of a sequel, after all!), so I suggest you catch it before reading on, if you haven’t already.
After a brief, rather knowing introduction that foreshadows some of the later events in the film, the story picks up where Tai Chi 0 left off: Yang Luchan has been accepted into the Chen village and allowed to learn Chen-style tai chi, while villain Fang Zijing scowls and grimaces and plots his revenge. Two mysterious figures, both very gifted martial artists, have arrived at the village, and various machines — this is the steampunk part — are being designed and tuned, ready for battle.
Despite their common gestation, Zero and Hero are two quite different films: the first is an origin story of sorts, introducing us to Yang Luchan and his unusual physiology and focusing the story on his struggle to survive and gain entrance to, and tutelage at, the famous Chen village. In Hero, all of this is in the background, and it makes the pace feel slower and the story feel more episodic — we’re seeing the continued adventures of our band of main characters. The focus shifts to the traditional family, both literally and as a political metaphor, along with Yang Luchan’s growth as a character and gradual understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of tai chi.
Another difference in the two films is that the filmmakers have turned down the videogame knob a little. The first film had overlaid text and graphics everywhere, pointing out significant locations in aerial shots, reminding the audience that this was a cameo by HK director Andrew Lau, adding names and life meters to the one-on-one action scenes. It’s cute for a while but a bit frenetic, and it’s a conceit that’s leaned on far less frequently in Tai Chi Hero.
As if to make up for the reduced zaniness and more measured pacing, we get a couple of action scenes that are quite a bit bigger than those in Tai Chi 0, from a giant melee with the Imperial Army that reminds me of some of Sammo Hung’s work in the 90s, to an elaborate fight with kung fu superstar Yuen Biao, who I’m delighted to see on the big screen again. It’s also nice to see ba gua zhang (like tai chi, another ‘internal’ Chinese martial art) referenced and used on screen, however briefly — the only other times I can remember seeing it used in film are in Jet Li’s The One (2001), in which the good Jet uses bagua and the bad one uses xingyi, and briefly in Lau Kar Leung’s Martial Arts of Shaolin (1986), also starring a youthful Jet Li.
Almost all the performances are good: Tony Leung Ka Fai is great as the older master Chen, combining the necessary gravitas with the occasional comic twinkle, and Angelababy does well as the female lead, though it felt like she had much less to do in this film than in the last. There’s a cameo in very heavy make-up by Daniel Wu, who I suspect enjoyed himself immensely. It’s perhaps Eddie Peng who comes off least well, playing the increasingly more battered and desperate villain, along with his lip-curlingly over the top patron Mr. Fleming (Peter Stormare). Working mostly in English and given very short scenes, the two of them have trouble coming across as anything more than caricatures.
Finally, there’s Yuan Xiaochao in the lead, in his first pair of films. Yang Luchan is not a particularly complicated character, reminiscent of many of those played by Jet Li and Jackie Chan in their early period work. Indeed, most of the cast spend the first half of this film calling Yang ‘the idiot’, and he’s forever just a little bit slower on the uptake than everybody else in matters non-martial. Nonetheless, it’s an amiable, likeable performance, which bodes well for the future. Like both Jet and Jackie, he’s certainly very capable on the action front, particularly when he’s able to show off with an action director like Sammo Hung and some experienced opponents, Yuen Biao in particular. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what he appears in next!