Sunday, July 14, 2013

From Zero to Tai Chi Hero

I feel a little bad about waiting the better part of a week after Tai Chi Hero arrived from Amazon to watch it - sure, there was giant monster stuff at the Brattle and trips north and I wanted to carve out time to re-watch the first as well, but, well, I've spent a fair amount of time complaining about not being able to see this movie in the theaters - from when it didn't play January like the teaser at the end of Tai Chi Zero promised, to its release date coinciding with IFFBoston, to it not playing Boston anyway...

I've said it before, but it frustrates me that these things don't play here very often. China Lion seems more or less defunct - you can book Back to 1942 via Gathr, but near as I can tell, that's all they've got going right now. Well Go USA is doing a pretty good job of booking things in theaters in larger cities, but not Boston. Can't say I blame them - I've blogged about low turnouts and walkouts too much to expect Chinese films to be booked here, especially when the theater closest to Chinatown is also the city's most expensive. The bummer of it is, Tai Chi Zero was one that did pretty well, even getting held over for a second week if I recall correctly.

I'd love to find a theater here to make Well Go's releases a regular thing, but the geography doesn't quite work - the theaters in areas where people might be expected to just drop into an Asian action movie are either expensive or tend to program to a different crowd. If FEI had been able to get hold of the Harvard Square theater, that would have been perfect.

Ah well. They Tai Chi ____ pictures are fun movies, available on DVD, Blu-ray, and the streaming services. Give them a watch and try to overlook that one of the stars things "Angelababy" is a reasonable thing for an adult to call herself.

Tai Chi Zero

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2013 in Jay's Living Room (Tai Chi Hero Double Feature, Blu-ray)

Second time through, still really dig the movie. Maybe I liked it a bit more, as this time I knew that the finale was going to serve more as a lead-in to another movie than something that finishes this story but leaves room for further adventures.

One thing I did find was that it handles its themes of interaction with the West differently - and maybe better - than a lot of movies of its type, especially in a time when Chinese nationalism is quite noticeable in a lot of movies. The closest thing to an Evil White Guy is Mandy Lieu's character, and she's pretty clearly hapa. There's a clear thread of characters being tempted by European/American things, but the filmmakers value modernity too much to completely reject them. As much as tradition wins out, there's a recurring theme that Chen village's isolation is harmful: Their treating Fang Zi-jing as an outsider, even though he grew up there, is what makes him the series' villain, and in Tai Chi Hero, their superstitions make them an easy target.

For all the flashy stuff going on, these are actually reasonably smart movies, especially for their genre.

What I said in October.

Tai Chi Zero

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2013 in Jay's Living Room (Tai Chi Hero Double Feature, Blu-ray)

In China, there was a mere four-week wait between Tai Chi Zero and this second part of the story; depending where you are in America, it wound up being six to eight months. Not that it much matters; now that they're on video it's a pretty easy double feature, and a fun one. It will certainly scratch any itch for steampunk kung fu action comedy that one might have, and I hope there's more coming.

Zero left off with Yang Lu Chan ("Jayden" Yuan Xiaochao) about to marry Chen Yu Niang (Angelababy) so that the people of Chen village won't maim him for "stealing" the kung fu style they have pledged not to teach to outsiders. Despite the rail-laying machine lying in ruins outside the village, it's not necessarily happily ever after: Defeated railway engineer Fang Zi Jing ("Eddie" Peng Yu-yen) hates the village more than ever and has a new patron in the East India Tea Company's Baron Fleming (Peter Stormare), while Yu Niang's father, Grandmaster Chen Chang Xing ("Tony" Leung Ka-fai), is certain that returning son Zai Yang (Feng Shaofeng) and his wife Jin ("Nikki" Hsin Ying Hsieh) have a hidden agenda.

Though shot back-to-back with Tai Chi Zero with more or less the same cast and crew, Tai Chi Hero is in some ways a little more serious; there are fewer Scott Pilgrim-style on-screen annotations and cheerful winks when introducing new characters and the actors who play them. There are introspective moments for Yu Niang, and as Lu Chan's "internal kung fu" improves, he becomes less of a child-like bumbler. It's a bit surprising that this works so well, but it does - where a lot of much more stone-faced movies will talk a good game about martial arts as a way to conquer inner turmoil but selling the fights, this one actually dramatizes it as Lu Chan grows from a childish prodigy prone to berserker rage to something resembling a mature adult.

Full review at EFC.

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