No film produced in the country has broken out at the box office recently in the way that “Hero” did, but “Tai Chi Zero,” the latest from actor-turned-director Stephen Fung (“Gen-X Cops,” “House Of Fury”), is certainly on the same playing field as big U.S. studio productions. A lavish, FX-packed martial arts action film with a steampunk aesthetic, it is also the first of a trilogy. Naturally. Perhaps more importantly, while it has its considerable flaws, it’s a fair bit more enjoyable than most of the summer blockbusters that came out of the States in the last few months.
In other words, it’s not so different from your average kung fu flick, albeit with some western elements thrown in and a Victorian steampunk aesthetic. But it differs from the competition in a number of ways. For one, it looks really good. Not much has been spared in terms of production value (likely helped by making three for the price of one). The sets and costumes are gorgeous, and the cinematography, courtesy of “Infernal Affairs” DoP Yiu-Fai Lai, is equally so. Fung throws every stylistic trick in the book – shutter speeds, filters, a silent film homage, you name it – at the film, and while you sometimes wish he’d let the action play out in long shot, it generally gives the film some zip and punch.
As such, the film is playful and inventive enough that you forgive it most of its shortcomings, of which there are several. A tragic romance between Yuniang’s fiancé (Eddie Peng) and a Western henchwoman is both narratively odd (why would we be expected to sympathise with the villains here?) and terribly performed, mainly because Fung decides to play it out in English. And the nature of the film being part of a trilogy (a trailer for part 2, which adds Peter Stormare, of all people, to the cast in the credits) means that all kinds of loose ends are left hanging, and the film concludes in irritatingly abrupt and unsatisfying manner.
But for the part, it’s a great watch, and, for all its silliness, a kind of live-action “Kung Fu Panda,” or a bigger budget version of a Stephen Chow film. The fights (choreographed by the great Sammo Hung) are varied and exciting, and the film is a genuine pleasure to look at most of the time. It won’t linger in the mind longer than it takes for the credits to roll, but it’s a lot of fun while it lasts, and we’re genuinely looking forward to part 2 at this point. [B-]