Yang Luchan (in real-life, China’s Jayden Yuan) is the butt of his village’s jokes. Seemingly not very bright, he is also bullied unmercifully because of the strange horn like growth on his shaven forehead, which turns colors when it’s whacked. It turns first red, then purple, and then the deadly black which he is told will signify that he is dying. After one too many fights which leave him bloody and dazed, (and his horn red and purple, turning black), his mother tells him that he must study tai chi in order to defend himself and give himself a sense of mastery. She is vehement about it: “Lu Chan, just learn this one thing (tai chi) superbly well and that will be enough.” She gently infuses this sense of mission into Lu Chan and dies on the spot. This motto seems to fit the film also - “just do this one thing superbly well and that will be enough.”
Well, the filmmakers actually did three things superbly well: Chinese martial arts, horrific railroad/engine destruction and intermittent often very funny graphic arts/manga. What they didn’t do so well was to infuse our heroes with some real personality and/or infuse a live sense of history into the story. But hey, how much should one expect from a comic book? I must admit, Tai Chi Zero was absolutely masterfully scripted trumping even Crouching Tiger. It was wonderful, to watch – at its peak, an entire village doing Chen Village Style Tai Chi, floating through the air high above the ground, narrowly missing each other. I never tire of this. It is truly an elegant explication of the beauty of traditional Chinese village life.
So who wouldn’t want to learn Tai Chi from these masterful villagers? But Lu Chan’s efforts to get someone to teach him are in vain. Everyone, from a small child to a village elder, defeats Lu Chan. There were wonderful cameos such as the set piece starring Brother Tofu, a master maker of Tofu, who fought Lu Chan, each whirling in concentric circles with Brother Tofu holding a large block of tofu and never letting it touch the ground And some fine battles by the ferocious midget frizzy headed Prodigy from Peking- virtually everyone has a title—whose penchant is for harsh kicks, very effective although she is barely four feet tall. She even attempts to take on the train. Gaining mastery of Kung Fu in this village of powerhouses seems virtually hopeless.
The second thing the filmmakers did superbly was to construct a fearsome gigantic fantastic railroad train named TROY (possible reference to the Trojan horse?), the creature that is a fierce Western opponent to the village people, to Kung fu and to their traditional Chinese way of life. TROY has been built to blast a new way right through the village, destroying all structures in its way. It is huge, ominous, an extraordinarily convincing piece of film-making, wheels within wheels, a veritable juggernaut of Western technology and as strongly as the village believes in their Kung Fu, it is hard for them and for us to imagine its destruction.
Manga: Finally, the live action is interspersed with Bang! Pop! Crash! Manga cartoon images which reprise what’s going on in the film and are often very funny. What the filmmakers didn’t do so well (and here I am probably carping pointlessly) - was to give the actors some believable dimension of feeling. The manga characters more or less represent them and their personalities.
Yes, there are some romances - the lady Yuniang (her screen name, oddly, is Angelababy) who is the supreme practitioner of Chen Village tai chi, the heart of the movie, and the heart of the village, flirts mercilessly with and finally bonds with Lu Chan.
Angelababy’s previous boyfriend, Fang Zijin, the villain, also a former inhabitant of Chen Village, who is bringing the fatal locomotive to destroy Chen Village, is a fanatical devotee of all that is new and exotic about the West. Dressed in comic book 19th century military style, he has also brought with him to Chen Village Claire, “aka the foreign woman” (likely partly Chinese and partly European) whose uniform is also Napoleonic in appearance. Angela and the foreign woman have a lot in common, - both are beautiful, powerful, deadly in their own way, and both are obsessed with Fang the locomotive warrior. They hate each other on sight.
This was in short quite a setup for a potentially complex long narrative (and since there is at least one sequel planned, perhaps that’s a good thing.). I was eager to hear dialogue about the violent clash of West and East by way of the locomotive but there was not much more substance. For that matter I was eager to get more inside the heads of the heroes and villains, but we didn’t really get that either. I guess the manga figures of the movie (had they been translated) provided all that one could need by way of exposition.
Nevertheless, I loved the tai chi and Lu Chan and Yuniang, charming and annoying as they were! And the climax - literally putting a spoke in the locomotive’s wheels- is satisfyingly explosive. The film hints broadly at a sequel, and I would definitely be eager to see it.