With its frisky camerawork, eclectic scenario and playful stylization, the Chinese period action romp Tai Chi Zero is an impressive package. That there's not much inside the glittery wrapping is just a minor drawback.
Like many kung fu movies, Tai Chi Zero draws on Chinese history. The era is circa 1900, and the Boxer Rebellion is under way. British imperialists and their local minions represent evil, while the "zero" hero is based on a real person, Yang Lu Chan, who founded his own school of tai chi. But such backstory is hardly essential; director Stephen Fung bends the past every which way as he ventures into the Victorian-futurist genre known as steampunk.
Lu Chan (Jayden Yuan) is introduced on the battlefield, fighting madly for the crazed Divine Truth Cult. The action sequences — choreographed by longtime Jackie Chan collaborator Sammo Hung — are as brawny and fanciful as the score, which shuffles European classics, swing jazz and Swedish death metal.
A quick flashback, rendered with minimal color and no dialogue, reveals that Lu Chan was born with a gift for martial arts — and a small horn protruding from his temple that got him dubbed "The Freak." His gift for berserking is also a curse, likely to cause an early death. A doctor advises the warrior to go to the Chen village, where a specialized local style of fighting might save his life by balancing exterior and interior forces.
When he arrives, however, Lu Chan learns that the Chen villagers refuse to teach their technique to outsiders. Encouraged to keep trying by a mysterious local (Tony Leung), the would-be student is repeatedly beaten up and kicked out. But his problems are soon overshadowed by those of the town: A British-educated villager, Zijing (Eddie Peng), has returned to build a railroad through the area, and won't take no for an answer.
When that's exactly the response he gets, Zijing and his British paramour (American-Chinese model Mandy Lieu) return with a steam-powered tank that towers over the hamlet. Lu Chan sets out to disable the war machine, joined by a former antagonist, pretty Yuniang (played by a Chinese actress who bills herself as Angelababy). To add to the winking melodrama, Yuniang is the daughter of the Chens' kung fu master, and is officially engaged to Zijing.
The dialogue is merely functional, and not always delivered convincingly. (Lieu's English is particularly wooden.) But the movie tells its story mostly with action and text. Like Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian director of Day Watch and Night Watch, Fung makes a virtue of subtitles by treating on-screen words as part of the overall design. Phrases pop up in simultaneous Chinese and English, and actors are introduced on screen not only by name but also by credits. (Since several of the players are real martial artists, these past accomplishments are as likely to involve athletics as acting.)
The running commentary adds another layer to a story that, on its own, is not exactly deep. It also highlights features that zip by so fast that they might otherwise be missed, such as cameos by a few noted performers and one Hong Kong director. Short animated sequences accent the movie's affinity with comic books, and places and actions are helpfully diagrammed.
The other cheeky touches include a false ending and an end-credit sequence that includes scenes from the upcoming sequel, Tai Chi Hero. Fung is enjoying himself so much that he doesn't want the movie to end — and his delight is infectious.