Starring Jayden Yuan, Tony Leung Ka Fai. Written by Cheng Hsiao Tse, Zhang Jialu. Directed by Stephen Fung. PG. 100 min. Opens April 26.
The second film in a planned trilogy of martial-arts thrillers by Hong Kong actor turned director Stephen Fung, Tai Chi Hero might be set in 19th-century China, but its hyperkinetic, tricked-out visual aesthetic is as new as new school gets. In fact, even seasoned viewers of kung fu cinema may be bewildered by the latest direction of the genre, given that the results bear only a passing resemblance to the chop-socky extravaganzas that the Shaw Brothers Studio churned out in the ’70s, or even more recent CGI-enhanced hits like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero. Instead, with their use of on-screen text and graphics and their patently unrealistic brand of mayhem, the elaborate fight scenes here owe more to the latest incarnations of the Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter videogame franchises.
Unfortunately, the effect was as exhausting as it was dazzling in Tai Chi Zero, which introduced the trilogy’s somewhat unlikely hero, Lu Chan (Jayden Yuan), a dim-witted but enormously powerful young fighter who becomes the first outsider ever to be taught the fearsome fighting style practiced in a remote village. When his new home is once again threatened with destruction due to the machinations of corrupt railway officials—including a dastardly westerner played by Peter Stormare— Lu Chan leaps into action to protect it.
Like its predecessor, Tai Chi Hero is continually hampered by its thin characters and badly convoluted narrative. But at least this time there are more opportunities to savour the many oddball pleasures, like the nifty design of the steampunk–inspired contraptions and the mischievous performance of Hong Kong great Tony Leung Ka Fai as the village’s martial-arts grandmaster. The bizarrely culinary-themed nature of Lu Chan’s last big fight should further delight anyone who worried that the genre had nowhere new to take its flying feet and iron fists.