Tai Chi Zero (China 2012)

Rating: **
Director: Stephen Fung
Action Director: Sammo Hung
Cast: Xiaochao Yuan, Angelababy (Yang Ying), Tony Leung Ka Fai, Eddie Pang, Mandy Lieu, Shu Qi, Xin Xin Xiong

Inexcusably bad. I nearly walked out of the theater after the first twenty minutes of this train wreck, and I weep for the current state of Chinese cinema. A boy named Chan Yang (Olympic martial arts champion Xiaochao Yuan) is born with special powers that make him a kung fu prodigy. Unfortunately, the more he fights, the quicker his life fades away. He visits Chen Village in order to heal his ailing body with Tai-chi, but the townsfolk refuse to teach their kung fu to outsiders. He gets repeatedly beat up by the villagers, but in the process learns their secret techniques. Then a vengeful and emotionally scarred town outcast (Eddie Pang) shows up with an enormous steam-powered machine and threatens to destroy the entire village unless the village elders agree to let him build a railroad on their land. Chan and Yunia (drop-dead gorgeous Angelababy) manage to take out the mechanical menace, which sets the stage for the already shot sequel, "Tai Chi Hero."

Following in Andrew Lau's footsteps, Stephen Fung's direction and sensibilities are offensive and appallingly misguided. The film is littered with quirky humor and absurd captions, and annoyingly calls out every major actor that was involved. About half of Yunia's fight scenes are overlaid with animated diagrams that describe her techniques, and video game conventions are used in several places (like showing a life bar over a character's head). The film is goofy and tedious, and the action scenes aren't particularly interesting. Samo Hung's choreography is decent enough and there are several moments of brilliance from Xiaochao Yuan and Tony Leung, but it's not enough to redeem the overall stupidity of the film.

In many ways, the film is reminiscent of "The Last Airbender" (2010), and the characters and conflicts are very similar. The combination of steampunk and kung fu is interesting and has excellent potential, but the tone and execution fail miserably. The one thing that kept me riveted to the screen and earned the film its reluctant two-star rating is the beautiful Angelababy. Wow... She's simply amazing and reminds me of a very young Rosamund Kwan. Her fight scenes are minimalistic and deceptively edited, but her ferocity and graceful execution lend a sense of authenticity and credibility. The other hottie in the film is Claire (Mandy Lieu), a European consultant sent to supervise the railroad operation. She's incredibly beautiful, but her colored contacts are a constant distraction and annoyance.

For the most part, the film looks great and the colors are bright and vivid. The sets and locations are gorgeous and the costumes are fabulous. Unfortunately, the digital effects are pretty poor, and appear to be rendered at a lower frame rate because the playback is noticeably jerky during effects scenes. It looks like the same frame rate conversion issues that TV and video had to deal with in the early 90's, which is visually jarring and looks horribly tacky. Wire tricks are used abundantly, and while wire removal technology is nearly flawless today, the actors are unconvincingly floaty and look like puppets being pulled by invisible strings. Definitely a step in the wrong direction for Chinese cinema and another nail in the coffin of the once great kung fu action genre.