Hong Kong/China, 2012, colour/b&w, 2.35:1, 3-D (China only), 102 mins.
Director: Feng Delun 冯德伦 [Stephen Fung].
A solid slice of entertainment that’s a vast improvement on the saga’s first part.
Northern China, late 19th century. Alarmed by foreign incursions, Qing dynasty progressives create the Self-Strengthening Movement, led by the modernist prince Dun (Yuan Wenkang) who is trusted by Empress Cixi. Meanwhile, in a remote corner of Henan province, Chen Yuniang (Yang Ying) prepares to marry outsider Yang Luchan (Yuan Xiaochao) to thank him for saving Chen Village from destruction by Troy No. 1, a huge “iron monster” operated by her vengeful ex-boyfriend Fang Zijing (Peng Yuyan), an employee of the British-owned East India Company that wants to build a railway line through the land. Chen Yuniang makes it clear to Yang Luchan that their marriage is only a paper one, as it is mainly meant to legitimise his secret study of Chen-style martial arts (which must never be taught to outsiders). During the marriage ceremony, Chen Yuniang’s elder brother, Chen Zaiyang (Feng Shaofeng), arrives with his wife Jin Yun’er (Xie Xinying), but finds he’s still spurned by their father, Chen Changxing (Liang Jiahui), the village’s current grandmaster, because he cheated at martial arts when he was a boy. Welcomed by the rest of the clan, Chen Zaiyang explains to his younger brother Chen Youzhi (Wu Di) that Chen-style martial arts, which were developed by 10th Grandmaster Chen Suole (Xie Xian), were once misused by a pupil, and a Mad Monk (Wu Yanzu) thereafter decreed the techniques had to remain within the clan, on pain of its obliteration. This was called the Bronze Bell Prophecy. Meanwhile, Yang Luchan has been blackballed by the villagers, who fear he’ll bring destruction to the place. Sure enough, the Bronze Bell mysteriously starts ringing one day, portending the end of Chen Village. Chen Changxing, however, suspects a secret plot by Fang Zijing, who has since reported back to his boss Fleming (Peter Stormare) in Tianjin and now installed himself as deputy governor of Henan province, with plans to attack the village with the Qing’s elite Sheng Ji Battalion and some giant German-made cannons.
Almost everything that was misconceived in Taichi Zero 太极1 从零开始 has been put right in Taichi Hero 太极2 英雄崛起, the second part of a “steampunk”, costume martial-arts trilogy by Hong Kong actor-director Feng Delun 冯德伦 [Stephen Fung]. Perhaps the difference in approach was always thus planned, or perhaps Feng had a rapid rethink after early reception to the first leg (both parts were shot back to back and released only a month apart). Whatever the case, Hero virtually ditches the over-heated, graphics-heavy style of Zero, along with most of its steampunk elements, in favour of a more straightforward, less show-offy approach that doesn’t batter the viewer into submission. Without being anything fresh or new, Hero is as solid a slice of entertainment as looks possible with this cast and script, and has an attractive, visually gliding style that involves the veiwer much more in the settings and performances.
Apart from one sequence where martial artist-turned-actor Yuan Xiaochao 袁晓超 (playing the putative lead) goes ballistic in the village one day, the pop-up graphics that made the first film look like a cross between a manga comic and an Asian TV game show are almost absent, as are in-jokes like references to actors’ movie backgrounds. Though Yuan is still part of a broader ensemble and not the central character, and Taiwan’s Peng Yuyan 彭于晏 [Eddie Peng] still lacks the screen heft for a real villain, the performances are allowed to breathe more, especially that of Mainland-born actress-model Yang Ying 杨颖 [Angelababy] as the female lead and compatriot Feng Shaofeng 冯绍峰 (who popped up at the end of Zero) as her elder brother. Hong Kong’s Liang Jiahui 梁家辉 [Tony Leung Ka-fai] still dominates the picture as the village’s grandmaster, with an effortless display of grizzled charisma, while fellow veteran Yuan Biao 元彪 gives the closing some weight in an imaginative fight sequence between him and Yuan Xiaochao on top of divider screens in an imperial kitchen. Throughout, the contribution of Hong Jinbao 洪金宝 [Sammo Hung] as action director is much more visible (and distinguished) in this film.
Among the other newcomers, Taiwan’s Xie Xinying 谢欣颖 (Honey PuPu 消失打看, 2011; Make Up 命运化妆师, 2011) is OK in an undeveloped role as the martial-arty wife of Feng’s character, but Sweden’s Peter Stormare looks and sounds awkward as the evil representative of the UK’s East India Company. A very brief coda – much shorter than the trailer for Hero attached to Zero – ominously promises a return in the final leg of the trilogy to a more steampunk focus, with mechanised Victorian gizmos. In fact, the saga so far ends quite comfortably with Hero, so it could well be best to let the whole ambitious enterprise rest here.
[The third part of the trilogy was never made, following disappointing box office for the first two parts. Zero had grossed only RMB147 million in China, and Hero 20% less, RMB118 million.]
Presented by Huayi Brothers Media (CN), Huayi Brothers International (HK). Produced by Diversion Pictures (HK).
Script: Zhang Jialu, Cheng Xiaoze. Original story: Chen Guofu. Photography: Ao Zhijun [Peter Ngor], Li Yaohui [Lai Yiu-fai], Du Jie. Editing: Cheng Xiaoze, Xu Weijie [Matthew Hui], Zhang Weili. Editing advice: Xiao Yang. Music: Ishida Katsunori. Production design: Ye Jintian [Tim Yip]. Art directors: Yang Zhanjia, Yuan Feng, Li Jianguo. Costumes: Liu Xuequn. Sound: Li Tao, Traithep Wongpaiboon, Nopawat Likitwong. Action: Hong Jinbao [Sammo Hung]. Special effects: Huo Jiantong, Du Guoqiang, Chen Cheng, Zhang Ruijian. Visual effects: Zou Zhisheng, He Peijian, Wu Xuanhui, Lao A (FATface Production), Yu Guoliang, Li Wenjun, Jules Lin (Free-D Workshop), Zhao Weijun, Lin Yuying (CG Eye Animation), Luo Weihao (Different Digital Design), Huang Hongxian (Menfond Electronic Art & Computer Design), Chang Song (Beijing Miracle Film & TV), Huang Shujun (Shujun Visual Effects Studio).
Cast: Liang Jiahui [Tony Leung Ka-fai] (Chen Changxing), Yuan Xiaochao (Yang Luchan), Yang Ying [Angelababy] (Chen Yuniang, Chen Changxing’s daughter), Peng Yuyan [Eddie Peng] (Fang Zijing), Feng Shaofeng (Chen Zaiyang, Chen Changxing’s eldest son), Yuan Biao (Li Qiankun, master), Feng Cuifan [Stanley Fung] (grand uncle), Xie Xinying (Jin Yun’er, Chen Zaiyang’s wife), Wu Di (Chen Youzhi, Chen Zaiyang’s younger brother), Yuan Wenkang (Dun, prince), Wu Yanzu [Daniel Wu] (mad monk), Xie Xian [Patrick Tse] (Chen Suole, 10th grandmaster), Peter Stormare (Fleming), Chen Sicheng (Chen Gengyun), Xiong Naijin (Chen Gengyun’s wife), Ying Da (Jiang Yanhao, Henan deputy governor), Shen Si (Tofu), Xiong Xinxin (Qin, uncle), Shu Qi (Yang Luchan’s mother), Feng Delun [Stephen Fung] (Nan), Wei Aixuan (Zhao Di).
Release: Hong Kong, 26 Oct 2012; China, 25 Oct 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 8 Jan 2013.)