The first clue that Stephen Fung's Tai Chi Zero is not your usual kung-fu kickfest is when our hero -- Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) -- is introduced on a 19th century Chinese battlefield to the strains of heavy metal. And then, for several minutes that follow, it becomes a silent film complete with title cards.
This is just a taste of the cross-cultural steampunk/martial arts/comic-book Sino-Anglo mash-up that makes Tai Chi Zero so visually entertaining. But, unless you're a die-hard fan of Chinese action films, its considerable charms -- Tai Chi Zero is littered with in-jokes -- may prove exhausting before its 95-minute run time is over.
Lu Chan was born with an uncanny sense of kung fu but he wants to learn the legendary style taught in the remote village of Chen. One problem: the residents don't teach their ways to outsiders. As luck would have it though, the British East India Company and their Chinese allies want to bring a rail line and Western technology to the town, whether its citizens want it or not. If Lu Chan can help Chen maintain its pure way of life, maybe its residents will let him in on their secrets.
Fung has assembled a star-studded cast and crew for followers of Chinese pop culture -- Xiaochao is a real-life wushu (martial-arts) champ, the action choreography is from frequent Jackie Chan collaborator Sammo Hung, while co-stars Tony Leung Ka Fai (Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame) and Qi Shu (The Transporter) even have a bit of a profile in the West.
But this may not be enough for others who may be put off by the stiff acting (especially when the actors speak in stilted English) or Fung's frenetic pace. But no one can say that Tai Chi Zero is boring and many of the fight scenes are wildly entertaining. It will be intriguing to see what Fung does in the future in which his colorful visual sensibility can be married to something less lightweight.
If you do make it to the end, be sure to stay through the credits. Not only is there a coda but there are also clips from the already-completed sequel. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
Exclusive: AMC Stonebriar, Frisco; Cinemark West Plano