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Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)

October 30, 2012 2 comments

Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012) proves the old adage that, if you travel with hope in your heart, you are doomed to arrive disappointed. The first half of this saga distributed as Tai Chi Zero was great fun, mixing different styles and playing the part of the joyful iconoclast. Unfortunately, since this is the steampunk half, it runs out of steam. I would not go quite so far as to say it’s boring, but there are certainly patches where the people around me were yarning extravagantly. This is a shame because at its heart, Tai Chi Hero is one of these rather pleasing message films that deserves a better delivery. So what’s it about?

Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao), Master Chen (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and Chen Yunia (Angelababy) face the Chinese army

 

We left our village enjoying the wedding of our potentially happy couple Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) and Chen Yunia (Angelababy) and rejoin as the knot is tied and Chen Zai-Yang (Feng Shaofeng), the long-lost brother, and his mute wife (Nikki Hsieh) return. This sets the basic theme. The first episode is very much about China’s under attack from the foreign devils. In playing the race card, the director Stephen Fung and scriptwriter Kuo-fu Chen are looking for nationalist fervour, uniting the largely expected Chinese audience against the cultural invaders. As a foreigner, I was rooting for the Chinese village, preferring the underdog to prevail when it has right on its side. This episode shifts the focus to the Chinese and although there is a contribution made by the British (and Germans through their artillery pieces), this is more about China coming to terms with itself and deciding what kind of future it wants. Put another way, the use of tai chi as a soft fighting style becomes a metaphor for the approach the Chinese leadership must take to minimise damage to its people and their culture. If we wanted to stretch the metaphor, we would be thinking about casting Hong Kong as the returning son having learned different ways while under foreign control. The two can rebuild the family relationship but only through mutual respect, not by main force.

Chen Zai-Yang (Feng Shaofeng) and his mute wife (Nikki Hsieh) approach Chen village

 

So, albeit in a heavy-handed way, the central story is about family and the shift in emphasis as the old settle into traditional ways while the young look for novelty. In this, Tony Leung Ka Fai is pivotal as the Master of the Chen village. His role is to maintain balance between the old and the new ways. Except he’s shown as having failed in his relationship with his oldest son. Naturally, as a proud new father, supremely confident in his own kung fu skills, he wanted to pass on the fighting style to his children. Sadly, the oldest boy had no real interest in fighting. He was a dreamer, destined to become an inventor, translating the visions of childhood into adult reality. This is where the “real” steampunk comes into play. He has two major innovations to offer us. The first falls into the class of augmentation. He was never motivated to actually learn how to fight, so he’s developed a clockwork-driven set of clothes and boots to wear which enable him to perform some of the standard moves. It’s an early version of The Tuxedo which enabled Jackie Chan to become an expert. However, Chen Zai-Yang outdoes himself with the magnificent flying machine. Not only does it make the efforts of the Wright brothers look primitive, it matches some of the modern fighter-bombers in being about to drop bombs and strafe troops on the ground with rockets. As Qing Dynasty hang-gliders go, this is in a class of its own. Add in the wonderfully baroque German cannons and we have quite a visual feast during the set-piece battle between the Chinese army sent by corrupt officials encouraged by Duke Fleming (Peter Stormare) and the Chen village.

Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) and his British master Peter Stormare

 

In narrative terms, there are three acts. In the first, the returning son attempts to displace his father and turn the village over for demolition to allow the railway free passage. This is reasonably effective, using local superstitions to frame the newcomer Yang Lu Chan as a jinx likely to destroy the traditions of the village. Fortunately, Master Chen sees through his son’s deception and we move into the second act which is the arrival of the Chinese army outside the village led by Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) and the fight led by Master Chen. The final third is set in the capital city as Yang Lu Chan proves his kung fu skills in an escalating series of fights until we get to the rather elaborately staged duel with Master Lin (Yuan Biao) above the kitchen where the Prince’s meal is being prepared. Sammo Hung deserves a lot of credit for seamlessly referencing the different preparation and cooking activities below in the fighting moves above. The sequence leading up to this fight is somewhat perfunctory and the resolution of the railway issue is, I suppose, an amusing go-with-the-flow tai chi solution. Indeed coming back to the message of the film, the family is reconciled, the married couple seem to have achieved some degree of happiness, and the East India company still lurks in the background with plans to make something new out of the failure named Zijing — a third episode is apparently planned.

 

I suppose I should not be surprised that a modern Hong Kong film should proclaim tai chi as a political philosophy in which the soft integration of all significant elements in the environment becomes the way in which to overcome obstacles. It’s the gentle way of winning by finding the route of least resistance, of using the enemy’s strength against itself. It’s a good way of showing that errors from the past can be corrected and new ways of forging the future can be discovered. I just wish the fun of the first episode had been retained. This is worthy and, in parts, dull. Some of the fighting is quite good but a lot of it is surreal and cut in a way that prevents you from seeing how the effects are supposed to be achieved. It has moments that are spectacular, but much of it is routine kung fu fare. Perhaps if I had not so enjoyed the first, this would have seemed better. If the team do get around to making a third, let’s hope they can recreate the innovative approach of the first.

 

For the review of the first part, see Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012).

 

Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010)
Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)

 

Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)

October 8, 2012 2 comments

Quite simply, Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero, 太極之從零開始 (2012) is exuberant fun from start to finish. To understand the approach taken by the director Stephen Fung and the screenwriter Kuo-fu Chen, you need to understand what can go wrong with a smörgåsbord. This is the Scandinavian approach to a buffet meal. When you enter the restaurant, you are confronted by multiple dishes. Done well, there’s a real synergy between all the different tastes and flavours. Done badly and, despite there being one or two dishes you find enjoyable, the entire experience is something of a disaster. The team behind this film have done their homework and noted all the different styles and techniques that can be put together in a film. When triggering a flashback, for example, they know they can change the aspect, shoot in black and white and use a shaky camera to suggest a home movie. Or they can more generally fade from a freeze frame into a pop-art image, use comic book animation, borrow the video-game need to keep fighting to get to the next level, and so on. When showing kung fu, they can use slow-motion and draw the flow of chi on the screen so we can all follow the logic of the moves and see their consequences. I could go on, but you get the idea. This film is literally a mosaic of different methods but, so elegantly have they been put together that the result rises above mere collage as a pasting of bits on the same screen. This is film-making art, blending the disparate elements into one of the best tai chi, kung fu films I’ve seen for a long time. Indeed, to complete the irreverence to traditional conceits, it’s directly metafictional in using the subtitles to introduce the different actors by their names and not their roles, and to mention odd facts about their real-world backgrounds.

Yuan Xiaochao getting the maximum leverage

 

So what about the plot? Well, the poster alleges this is steampunk but that’s not strictly true. Although the track-laying machine is an exaggeration of what even modern technology can achieve, all the basic machines on display are more or less in period. With the exception of the central machine, there’s nothing so completely anachronistic that it qualifies as steampunk. What we have is a very traditional kung fu film in which China’s culture is being subverted by evil Westerners. In this case, they want to build a railroad and, through local agents, are literally not going to let anything stand in their way. It’s a standard plot having been recycled through films like Tsui Hark’s great series Once Upon a Time in China (1991) which invites us to lament the end of an era in which tradition was made redundant by a different cultural approach supported by foreign technology. The trilogy shows the worst effects of colonialism and the cultural imperialism that accompanied it.

Angelababy prepared to take on all-comers

 

Hence, this film shows us an idyllic village where traditional values have been fiercely guarded for generations. After a long prologue in which we see the birth and training of our hero in the hard fighting styles, Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) arrives hoping to learn the soft style for which the village is famous. He has a serious medical problem and, if he persists in using the hard styles, he will kill himself. Unfortunately, the villagers have a strict policy not to teach outsiders. The village is therefore a metaphor for China, resisting outside influences and preserving the “old ways”. To prove the value of the old ways, the village is then subject to destabilising forces. Our hero will not take no for an answer and learns the core of the soft tai chi style by fighting the villagers and learning from what they do. This is not a theft of their knowledge. Rather it’s using the local strength against itself. If they did not fight him, he could not learn from them.

Tony Leung Ka Fai showing us the traditional way is best

 

The second challenge comes from within. Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) was a villager who went overseas and learned foreign ways. He returns to the village as an agent for the East India Company to persuade them to allow the railway to pass through. As a child, he was loved by Chen Yunia (Angelababy), but he’s now being backed by a British woman and her access to British technology. So this is a film about balance. Fang Zijing’s rejection must be set against Yang Lu Chan’s assimilation of the old ways. Similarly, the hard fighting styles will not work against armour-plating. You need the soft approach to slip inside its defences and then use the machine’s internal energy against it. The strategy comes from Master Chen (Tony Leung Ka Fai) who hopes to use the outsider Yang Lu Chan to defeat the British. That way, no-one will blame the village. Unfortunately, his daughter Chen Yunia joins in the fight directly, fueled by anger and jealousy for Fang Zijing. This leads to a direct attack in retaliation and gives us a chance to see Master Chen in action.

Eddie Peng cultural traitor taking on British ways

 

I accept Tai Chi Zero may not be to everyone’s taste. It’s a halfway house between the traditional Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) style and the more Western comic-book fantasies like Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010). The fighting choreographed by Sammo Hung is terrific, helped by the casting of Yuan Xiaochao, a former Wushu world champion. So, putting all this together, I left the cinema with a big smile on my face, looking forward to the second half which is due later this year. Yes, Stephen Fung filmed the two halves back-to-back and, if the clips are anything to go by, this may actually be more steampunkish with airpower adding to large cannons arriving by sea. Obviously, Western strategists recognise you can always defeat hand-to-hand prowess by aerial bombing and artillery fire from a distance.

 

Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010)
Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)

 

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