Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tai Chi Hero: Stephen Fung Brings the Family Values

“Pushing Hands” style kung fu is an important Chen family tradition.  For complicated reasons, Chen village is forbidden to teach their kung fu to outsiders.  While they do not break this rule, they bend it considerably in Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi Hero (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Yang Lu Chan, “the Freak,” sought to learn Chen-style kung fu to balance his karma and counteract the mutant berserker horn on his temple sapping his vital energy.  Of course, everyone said no, but the earnest plodder kept trying.  However, when Yang nearly dies defending Chen village from invaders, the Master’s daughter, Chen Yu Niang, takes pity on Yang, marrying him into the clan.

Initially, it is not much of a marriage, but he sure takes to Master Chen’s instructions.  Yang should most likely live and thrive, but the future of Chen village is soon threatened again.  Teaming up with a rogue British officer and the Chinese Imperial army, Yu Niang’s ex Fang Zijing (a Chen village outsider himself) means to capture Master Chen and his daughter and son-in-law.  They are willing to give themselves up for the sake of the village, but not without a fight, which is spectacular.

In his follow-up to Tai Chi Zero, Fung doubles down on the steampunk trappings, introducing Master Chen’s prodigal son Zai, who never properly paid his kung fu dues, but has these flying machine inventions, a la Da Vinci’s Demons.  While Hero lacks the breakneck lunacy of Zero, it is surprisingly warm and endearing.  This is the family values installment of the franchise, featuring reconcilements between fathers and sons and wives and husbands—and it all works somehow.  Of course, there is also the massive showdown with the Imperial Army.

Jayden Yuan comes into his own as the innocent Yang this time around, nicely portraying the maturation of the Freak’s character and his kung fu. Angelababy does not quite have as much screen time in Hero, which is a pity considering how charismatic she is as Yu Niang.  Still, she has some dynamic action sequences in the big battle and should become a truly international superstar on the basis of her work in the franchise. 

“Big” Tony Leung Ka Fai keeps doing his Zen thing as Master Chen and he’s as cool as ever.  Somewhat bizarrely though, as Duke Fleming, Swedish actor Peter Stormare (who has been reasonable comprehensible in English language features like Fargo and The Big Lebowski) seems to be channeling the sort of weird, affected sounding white-devil heavies of kung fu movie tradition.

Tai Chi Hero is nearly as much outrageous fun as Zero, but it has more heart.  With the final film of the trilogy in the pipeline, Fung’s Tai Chi series should become a fan favorite.  Enthusiastically recommended for martial arts fans, Tai Chi Hero opens this Friday (4/26) in New York at the AMC Empire.