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July 3, 2013

Movie Review – Taichi Hero (2012)

by Master Pillow

Stephen Fung’s follow-up to his highly anticipated yet ultimately disappointing Taichi Zero (2012) is actually a much better picture featuring not only a coherent story but also something the original lacked, namely better action sequences.  Fung basically used the kitchen sink approach in the first film much to its detriment as the over-indulgence of self-referential material, excessive editing and tension-less fighting sequences did nothing but send the movie into the cinematic gutter.  Taichi Hero (2012) is almost the exact opposite as Fung has jettisoned the altogether spastic style of the first installment and settled in to a more traditionally framed film and the result is a far better movie going experience albeit still far below the pre-release hype.

Taichi Hero begins almost exactly where Taichi Zero left off as the villagers prepare for the grand wedding of Yang Lu-Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) to Chen Yu Niang (Angelababy) when the ceremony is rudely interrupted by two mysterious figures who turn out to be the Grandmaster’s (Tony Leung Ka-Fei) disowned son Chen Zai-Yang (William Feng) and his mute wife (Nikki Hsieh).  Their return creates chaos amongst the villagers yet the Grandmaster basically struts off in rage obviously not pleased with the return of his progeny.

It seems Chen Zai-Yang and his wife want to rejoin and reintegrate themselves into the village lifestyle in some capacity although it quickly becomes apparent that they have a hidden agenda.  Concurrently, the newly wedded couple of Yang Lu-Chan and Chen Yu-Niang effectively start off in wholly the wrong kind of relationship that is based more upon her being a martial arts master and he her humble student.  Not only does she remain aloof and bossy but she forbids him to sleep in the same bed commanding him to instead curl up on the cold floor.

Perhaps a large part of her inherent frozenness comes from the fact that her father has admitted to her that the only way for Yang Lu-Chan to become a true martial arts master is to balance her yin to his yang and it doesn’t take a genius to realize he also by extension means true love and obviously intimacy.  To say that she is initially disgusted would be an understatement.

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While all this social intrigue is happening the first film’s antagonist Fang (Eddie Pang) falls into an emotional gutter now completely enraged that he lost the battle with the villagers which also cost him the love of his life.  Discarding whatever residual feelings that he retained for its inhabitants he sets down a path of vengeance with the goal being the total destruction of the town and the subjugation of its population.  As fate would have it, Fang allies himself with the shady East India Company represented by a very overblown and maniacal leader played by Peter Stormare and soon he finds himself not only with an army but one which is armed to the teeth with modern weaponry ranging from cannons to a multitude of rifles.  Will Fang succeed in enacting his violent retribution or will Yang Lu-Chan and the villagers survive yet another seemingly omnipotent enemy?

They say hindsight is 20-20 and I have a feeling director Stephen Fung decided when editing Taichi Hero that throwing in too many breaks in the fourth wall was ultimately not a good strategy.  To his credit this is one cinematic example of a director clearly realizing the faults of his earlier film and attempting a mid-stream course correction.  The self-referential material is still here but it is so toned down and subdued that it no longer interrupts the flow of the film and the reliance on a solid though clichéd story actually does wonders in creating some level of audience sympathy for the plight of many of its characters.  Yet it has to be said that one of the primary issues that plagued the first film unfortunately continues and that is a lead protagonist that is about as electrifying as a dead battery.

Once again I find myself repeating one of the points I made in relation to the original film and that is I suspect director Stephen Fung and his crew knew early that poor newcomer Yuan Xiaochao has a limited acting range thus has decided to turn his focus onto the supporting characters.  This causes both films to feel inherently unbalanced as virtually all the character arcs are devoted to everyone excluding the hero basically emasculating him to the point of boredom.

Although there are a few throwaway lines of dialogue that actually explain why Yuan Xiaochao’s character essentially acts as a simpleton it is not near enough to allow viewers a window into his psyche.  Worse, whatever attempts are made to show him learning and growing into his eventual heroic role all fail miserably as they are not organically woven into the narrative and thus come off as deus ex machina moments of insight that are pulled out of the screenwriter’s posterior in a vain effort to force the hero to grow.

Surely part of the problem is that Yang Lu-Chan has no discernible obstacles to overcome, a fact made worse by a script that turns him into a passive deadweight that only succeeds because someone else, namely the Grandmaster, prods him in the right direction.  This is not only narratively exasperating but it also causes viewers to lose all connection to him and his plight as he is essentially being groomed by the Grandmaster to take over the school yet never once displays quick thinking or any sort of mental capacity to rise to the occasion.

One lamentable by-product of his totally unbelievable growth is that it turns his wife, Yu-Niang, from the active go-getter in Taichi Zero to a banal stage prop who barely participates in the action even though she is still his “master.”  While most viewers will intrinsically understand that Yang Lu-Chan is the hero thus must participate in the film’s climax it literally makes no sense as at that point in the film there is no evidence that his martial arts skill has surpassed his wife or the grandmaster.

A more believable avenue would have been to showcase Yu Niang against the final “boss” yet that would obviously not please the male members of the audience and unfortunately smacks of poorly plotted gender bias.  As a note to future scriptwriters if you intend to force a film into such a climax a few lines of dialogue or even a short scene showing the Lu-Chan in competition with his wife and then beating her fairly would go a long way to removing this narrative pothole.

Once again Angelababy and Tony Leung Ka Fei are in fine form although, as previously mentioned, the romantic subplot between Angelababy’s Yu Niang and Yuan Xiaochao’s hero is as flat as a pancake showing not even a tiny spark when needed.  Having the big expository reveal of their love come about through a ridiculously curt night dance sequence to saccharine music only succeeds in showcasing their total lack of chemistry.

The Grandmaster himself played with aplomb by Tony Leung Ka Fei is also part of the problem merely because he comes from the Obi-Wan school of mentoring where everything he says is always correct even though he gives no justification for his teachings.  This essentially creates a mundane feeling of sameness whenever he is on screen as it goes without saying that anything coming out of his mouth is automatically true even though he refuses to expand on his points much to the detriment of the plot which forces audiences along on a leash and purposely withholds key information by not letting characters ask pertinent questions.

Speaking of Angelababy’s character the script also does everything it can to gloss over and totally ignore dramatically important points brought forth in the first installment most glaring the fact that our heroes inadvertently caused the death of Eddie Pang’s lover, Claire.  This is no small issue as it creates massive viewer sympathy for the antagonist rather than the heroes a fact even further compounded when they do not even acknowledge that their actions ended in someone’s demise.

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By having the heroes totally “forget” that they were responsible for Claire’s death it once again allows Eddie Pang’s villain to fume and provides him added justification for seeking revenge.  Seriously, I mentioned in my review of the original that Taichi Zero was playing with fire by allowing Fang to gain so much compassion that it made the heroes seem like villains and unfortunately the point is brought up again in Taichi Hero with a verbal exchange between Chen-Zai Yang and Fang where he comments that even the Grandmaster’s black sheep son treated him badly when they were young.  Admittedly, Fang turns into a clichéd lunatic who snarls and wants to kill everyone who ever tormented him but surely one of the heroes including the near-godlike Grandmaster can understand his motivations.  For all the weighty exposition given to honour and family it is just narratively lazy for characters to not clue in that they “created” Fang’s villainous mindset through years of mistreatment.

The true acting standouts in the film are William Feng as Chen Zai-Yang and Nikki Hsieh as the husband and wife duo that lie at the film’s emotional center. Chen Zai-Yang’s on again off again quest for his father’s approval is what drives the narrative forward more so than anything relating to Lu-Chan and his wife.  William Feng turns in a commendable performance as the estranged yet mentally brilliant son and Nikki Hsieh actually manages to craft a compelling character out of virtually nothing as she is silent throughout the entire film.  It is too bad that this couple was not the primary focus of these two films as it would have been far more interesting to watch.

Taichi Hero feels very choppy because the film itself is bifurcated into two distinctly separate narrative arcs that effectively split the movie in two creating a final product that feels as if it more akin to an episodic television series rather than cinematic martial arts epic.  The film basically breaks the traditional ¼-1/2-1/4 rule that nearly all films adhere to.  This basically means that if a film runs 120 minutes that the key inflection points will occur at approximately 30 minutes into the film and again at 90 minutes denoting the change in acts.

However, due to competing storylines the film feels as if it is constructed as more than one movie as it basically speeds through a traditional three act structure within the first 45 minutes nearly all devoted to Chen Zai-Yang and his wife.  By doing this the last 45 minutes or so of the film feel inherently disjointed as the movie limps unceremoniously towards a truncated climax.  The only positive thing to say is that at least Taichi Hero ends with a definitive climax as well as a decent hook to set up the planned third part of the trilogy something that Taichi Zero completely forgot as it ended with a massive emotional thud.

It might have taken two full movies but it is only in the film’s final ten minutes that its claim of action brilliance comes true with a nifty wire-aided fight between Lu-Chan and Master Li played by long time martial arts actor Yuen Biao.  Director Stephen Fung along with action director Sammo Hung crafts a lyrical sequence that actually manages to physically convey to the audience the fundamental philosophy behind the villagers’ martial arts style.

What is disappointing is that it took almost three tortuous hours of uneven quality entertainment to get to this point.  All the other action scenes fall far below par including two nearly identical setups where enemy forces attempt to invade the village.  The first film failed to create any sense of excitement in this sequence because it used flying fruits and vegetables and near-invincible villagers to fell the antagonists.  However, that was far better execution than the dreadful similar sequence in Taichi Hero where our three heroes have to face off against Fang’s army alone.

This should have been the highlight of the film showcasing your standard David and Goliath scenario but the entire battle is totally undone by some questionable directorial choices from Stephen Fung who makes the decision to once again over-edit in an attempt to generate tension by essentially removing frames to create a strobe-like effect that feels as if the audience is watching a silent 1920s film on a stuttering projector that is about to combust.  The end result is a sequence that will induce migraines instead of providing a jolt of excitement.

Taken as a film duo the Taichi series never achieves its intended goals and has to be seen as a major disappointment for those hoping for a different take on the martial arts action adventure genre.  The simplest reason for failure is that the narrative feels like a hatchet job, filled with ideas ripped from other influences yet having no coherent glue to hold it together.  No amount of cool visuals or funky editing techniques can hope to replace the lack of asolid script.  The Taichi series was certainly ambitious but the results are oh so dire that there really isn’t much to recommend in either film and I seriously doubt the planned third film will somehow redeem the entire trilogy.

*1/2 out of ****

2012, China, 100 Minutes, Diversion Pictures / Huayi Brothers & Taihe Film Investment
Directed by Stephen Fung
Screenplay by Kuo-fu Cheng
Produced by Stephen Fung, Zhongjun Wang, Daniel Wu, Dajun Zhang
Executive Producer Zhongjun Wang, Kuo-fu Chen
Associate Producer David Chan, Helen Li, Ken Wu, Tingkai Yang
Cinematography by Yiu-Fai Lai
Action Director Sammo Hung

Yuan Xiaochao: Yang Lu Chan
Angelababy: Chen Yunia
Tony Leung Ka Fai: Master Chen
Eddie Peng: Fang Zijing
Shaofeng Feng: Chen Zai-Yang
Master Li: Yuen Biao
Peter Stormare: Duke Fleming
Chen Zai-Yang’s Wife: Nikki Hsieh

© 2013 The Galactic Pillow

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