Unrated (mild language, martial-arts violence); 95 min.
The first clue that Stephen Fung's Tai Chi Zero is not your usual kung-fu kickfest is when our hero, Yang Lu Chan (real-life martial-arts champ 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 (the often broadly comedic Tai Chi Zero is littered with in-jokes), its considerable charms may prove exhausting before its relatively brief, 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 Co. and its 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. There are brief cameos from other notables in the world of martial arts and Chinese films. No doubt, this has helped Tai Chi Zero become a box-office sensation in China and Taiwan.
But this may not be enough for others, who may be put off by the stiff acting, the stilted English or director Fung's frenetic pace. But no one can say that Tai Chi Zero is boring, and many of the fight scenes are wildly entertaining. If you do make it to the end, be sure to stay through the credits. Not only is there a coda but also clips from the already completed sequel.
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-- Cary Darling