Hong Kong/China, 2012, colour, 2.35:1, 3-D (China only), 97 mins.
Director: Feng Delun 冯德伦 [Stephen Fung].
First leg of an announced trilogy is over-cooked, uninvolving and way more miss than hit.
Northern China, Qing dynasty, c. 1817. During the early 19th century, the Qing dynasty is suffering from gradual western encroachment and also from internal problems, such as the anti-Qing Divine Truth cult. Among the Divine Truth warriors is Yang Luchan (Yuan Xiaochao), 18, nicknamed The Freak because of an ugly-looking carbuncle on his forehead. Born in Guangping, Hebei province, Yang Luchan had been thrown out of home along with his mother (Shu Qi) and adopted by Zhao Kanping, leader of the Divine Truth forces, who spotted his potential. When the Divine Truth army is defeated by Qing forces, Yang Luchan, at the urging of Divine Truth army physician Dong (Liang Xiaolong), escapes and travels to Chen Village, Henan province, to study master Chen Changxing’s special brand of martial arts that promotes internal energy. Yang Luchan’s batteries have been depleted by Zhao’s aggressive fighting style, and the carbuncle on his head has turned red; when it goes black, he will die. However, when he arrives at the village, master Chen is nowhere to be found and no one will teach him Chen-style martial arts, as he is an outsider. Chen’s daughter, Chen Yuniang (Yang Ying), who runs the local medicine shop, makes this very clear. Also in the village is Chen Yuniang’s boyfriend, Fang Zijing (Peng Yuyan), who was raised there but was never taught Chen-style martial arts as his family name was not Chen; after studying in Europe, he’s now returned to convince the villagers to allow a railway through their land and to install electricity. After his presentation goes wrong, and Fang Zijing is laughed out of town, he joins forces with East India Company representative Claire Heathrow (Liu Bili) to persuade the villagers by force. Meanwhile, at the urging of an old labourer (Liang Jiahui), Yang Luchan has secretly been learning Chen-style martial arts by studying the techniques of the villagers, including Chen Yuniang, who regularly beat him up. Then one day Fang Zijing and Claire Heathrow arrive with foreign soldiers – and giant construction-cum-destruction machine Troy No. 1 – to teach the villagers a lesson.
Maybe things will change over the next two legs, but as a curtain-raiser to one of the most ambitious instant franchises in Chinese cinema Taichi Zero 太极1 从零开始 doesn’t raise one’s hopes. This first leg of a steampunk martial-arts trilogy by Hong Kong actor-director Feng Delun 冯德伦 [Stephen Fung] – a fictional fantasy woven round real-life taiji master Yang Luchan 杨露禅 (1799-1872) – is poorly directed, weakly written and iffily cast, and tries way too hard to be different and cheeky, overloading the viewer with visual information while ignoring basic elements like structure, storyline and character development. Worst of all, it’s a martial-arts comedy made by someone with apparently little real sense of humour. Feng’s okay two previous comedies as a director – gangster outing Enter the Phoenix 大佬爱美丽 (2004) and period martial-arts jape House of Fury 精武家庭 (2005) – gave no special proof why he should be entrusted with such an ambitious undertaking, and such proves the case in practice.
Though it may become more evident in the subsequent legs, Feng’s personal fascination with steampunk culture is largely visible here in the film’s second half, as the villains arrive in a colossal, steam-powered iron contraption (called Troy No. 1) that doubles as both a construction and a destruction machine, full of cogs, wheels and clanking iron plates. Steampunk imagery is hardly new in Chinese costume martial arts movies – Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame 狄仁杰之通天帝国 (2010) made elaborate use of it, and the recent The Four 四大名捕 (2012) more limited reference – and in Zero Troy No. 1 is simply a cartoonish attempt to contrast lumbering western industrialised might with quick-thinking Chinese ingenuity. The latter wins the day, but the trailer at the end to the next leg, Taichi Hero 太极2 英雄崛起, shows that more western hardware is on its way across the seas.
Aside from that, the film is exceptionally busy with screen graphics that recall comicbooks (“Slam!” “K.O.!”) and Asian TV pop-ups (labels on people and things, backstories filled in, taiji force-fields circled), as well as brief, manga-like animated sections. The backstory of the film’s hero is mounted like a (kind of) silent movie and, in what is probably a first, actors are captioned with descriptions like “1970s kung-fu star” and “director of Infernal Affairs trilogy”. It should all be lively fun – but strangely isn’t. Zero is like a stage comic who tries to make up for his act’s lack of real content by fooling around and laughing at his own jokes.
Feng’s scattergun approach is certainly deliberate, but quickly tiresome, even continuing at the end with a phoney credits roll (“No, not the end!”). Lost en route are any empathy with the characters, any real drama between them, and any sense of story arc. Though Zero is only 97 minutes long, it feels more like two hours plus, and its lack of dramatic shape is highlighted when it just ends – on neither a rising tone nor a cliffhanger, but simply with the introduction of two new characters.
The film’s visual overload may have been more digestible with stronger lead actors for the viewer to focus on. However, real-life changquan 长拳 martial arts champion Yuan Xiaochao 袁晓超 is dull as a performer and, in this leg at least, isn’t given much to do except get kicked around and look lost. As the village’s prodigal son who returns as some kind of Isambard Brunel in top hat, boots and Qing pigtail, Taiwan’s Peng Yuyan 彭于晏 [Eddie Peng] (Hear Me 听说, 2009; Close to You 近在咫尺, 2010) doesn’t yet have the age, range or screen charisma to pull off such a role, and the same goes – to a slightly less extent – for Shanghai-born actress-model Yang Ying 杨颖 [Angelababy], who’s made a quick mark the past couple of years in romantic comedies (Love in Space 全球热恋, 2011; Love You You 夏日乐悠悠, 2011) but hasn’t yet got the screen clout to carry a production of this size as the lead actress. As a villainous rep of London’s East India Company, American-Malaysian Chinese model Liu Bili 刘碧丽 [Mandy Lieu], dressed like an 18th-century courtier, is largely destroyed by terrible re-voicing and poor English dialogue (especially in embarrassing love scenes with Peng).
It’s left to veteran Liang Jiahui 梁家辉 [Tony Leung Ka-fai] to give the film some performance ballast, but even he gets few chances in the scrappy script, co-authored by Taiwan’s Cheng Xiaoze 程孝泽 (Miao Miao 渺渺, 2008), also one of the four editors and recipient of a special thanks from Feng in the end credits. (Cheng also directed Peng in boxing drama Close to You.) Action sequences, staged by Hong Jinbao 洪金宝 [Sammo Hung], are average, with wire-work and slo-mo not always fluidly incorporated; and Yuan himself gets relatively few chances here to really strut his stuff. Widescreen photography is good without having any special look or texture, and the score by Japan’s Ishida Katsunori Ichida 石田胜范 (Painted Skin: The Resurrection 画皮II, 2012) is over-emphatic.
Version that world premiered at the Venice Film Festival was in 2-D. The second leg, Taichi Hero, was shot at the same time and is set to be released a month later.
Presented by Huayi Brothers Media (CN), Huayi Brothers International (HK). Produced by Diversion Pictures (HK).
Script: Cheng Xiaoze, Zhang Jialu. Original story: Chen Guofu. Photography: Ao Zhijun [Peter Ngor], Li Yaohui [Lai Yiu-fai], Du Jie. Additional photography: Lin Zhijian [Charlie Lam]. Editing: Cheng Xiaoze, Xu Weijie [Matthew Hui], Zhang Jialu, Zhang Weili. Editing advice: Xiao Yang. Music: Ishida Katsunori. Production design: Ye Jintian [Tim Yip]. Costume design: Zhao Ziying, Liu Xuequn. Sound: Li Tao, Traithep Wongpaiboon, Nopawat Likitwong. Action: Hong Jinbao [Sammo Hung]. Additional action: Zheng Jizong. Visual effects: Zou Zhisheng, He Peijian, Wu Xuanhui, Lao A (FATface Production).
Cast: Liang Jiahui [Tony Leung Ka-fai] (The Old Labourer/Chen Changxing), Yang Ying [Angelababy] (Chen Yuniang), Yuan Xiaochao (Yang Luchan/The Freak), Peng Yuyan [Eddie Peng] (Fang Zijing), Feng Shaofeng (Chen Zaiyang, Chen Yuniang’s brother), Shu Qi (Yang Luchan’s mother), Feng Cuifan [Stanley Fung] (great-uncle Chen No. 3), Liu Bili [Mandy Lieu] (Claire Heathrow), Ying Da (Henan governor), Wu Di (third son), Xiong Naijin (Ersao), Liang Xiaolong (Dong, physician).
Premiere: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition), 31 Aug 2012.
Release: Hong Kong, 4 Oct 2012; China, 27 Sep 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 1 Sep 2012.)