Kung Fu vs. Steampunk! That’s all you really need to know!
...Oh, okay, guess we can go a little more in-depth with the plot synopsis. The titular Tai Chi 0 is a young man known as “The Freak,” whose strange deformity gives him supernatural fighting prowess, but is slowly killing him. Freak’s only hope for survival is to study the art of “internal kung fu,” a technique known only by one small village, which just happens to have fallen under the ruthless gaze of the British East India Company and its steam-powered death machines.
Life of the Party (Positives):
Much like the last Chinese movie I wrote about, Painted Skin: the Resurrection, one of the greatest strengths of Tai Chi 0 is its visuals, though this spectacle is interesting for reasons beyond the beautifully-colored, slow motion acrobatics that modern martial arts fans have grown accustomed to. Tai Chi 0's cinematography is highly inventive, and incorporates modern framing devices that are entertaining simply for how jarringly out of place they are in the setting. Like Crank, the story is presented almost like a live-action video game, with animation overlays and random bits of titling that provide interesting background information or just add intensity to a scene. One memorable segment involves the protagonist undergoing a long series of martial arts challenges, but rather than simply montaging them together, the movie presents each one as a different video game level, complete with character stats, animated objective markers, and I'm pretty sure I saw a health bar at one point. The credits are also very charming, as they continue throughout the entire movie gleefully introducing each new character, complete with interesting bits of trivia about the actor. The end result is like having a martial arts expert friend sitting next to you, who can point out that this actor was 2010 National Wu Shu Champion or that that old guy there was famous in '70s kung-fu flicks or whatever - it's totally unnecessary, but fun.
Aside from the quirky meta-elements, the kung fu vs. steampunk premise provides for loads of awesomeness as well. Midway through the movie, the evil railroad barons reveal their secret weapon, which is basically the smoke-belching cast-iron great grandpa of the Technodrome. The attention to detail for this prop, both the outside of it and the whirling, steam-jetting, cog-laden interior set, makes every scene involving it amazingly rich and menacing. This machine is what the hokey-looking spider robot from Wild Wild West was trying to be, but instead of Will Smith quipping his way through fights, we get intricate Jackie Chan-style stuntwork and bone-crunching wuxia action between the grinding gears. Even without the steampunk elements, though, every fight in this film is beautifully shot and impressively performed, with plenty of "Ooh!" moments when a character gets his ass kicked especially hard. The Chinese guy vs. British guy fist-fights aren't quite as brutal as in the similarly-styled Ip Man movies, but they come pretty close.
Potential Hangovers (Negatives):
The biggest flaw this movie has is that for the most part, you don't really like the characters that are supposed to be the protagonists. We've all seen the "tiny rural town defends their traditional way of life from rampant industrialization" story before, and there's nothing wrong with that concept, but the motivations of the villagers really ARE backward, overly conservative, and downright selfish. The entire plot basically revolves around the village's special tai chi style, which is never taught to outsiders - nobody will allow Freak to learn it, even when it's literally the only thing that can save his life. The villain, on the other hand, is only motivated to take revenge because he was ridiculed throughout his childhood for not knowing kung fu... ALSO because the village elders refused to teach him. I suppose it's good for the characters' relationships to be multifaceted and complex, but when giant robots start crushing houses, it's hard to feel like the townsfolk aren't just reaping what they've sewn with their cruelty and xenophobia. There's maintaining your small-town traditions, and then there's being John Lithgow in Footloose - unfortunately, the villagers fall deep enough into the latter category that it's kinda hard to root for them. It's a good thing that Freak is such a heroically nice guy, or else there’d be no likeable characters at all.
The Vibe – Casual Gathering, Guys’ Night
If I had to describe Tai Chi 0 in brief, it would be "laugh-out-loud awesome;" there are so many cool things on display that you can't help having an instinctive physical reaction to them. The concept of kung fu vs. steampunk is novel enough to attract most people, but rather than rest on its cool premise, the movie ups its game with inventive storytelling and loads of nifty little surprises right out of the gate. Watch this movie with some action-loving friends, then try to find something to do while you wait for Part 2 to become available, because you'll want to watch that one, too.
+ High-quality ass-kicking in the modern martial arts style
+ The best live action execution of “steampunk” I’ve ever seen
+ Quirky visual gags and trivia add hilarious sprinkles to an already awesome cake
- Overly provincial characters make it so you almost want to root for the villain instead
Drinking Game Ideas:
~Drink every time Freak gets beaten up (drink twice if it's by a woman or child)
~Drink for each "Pop Up Video" trivia credit
~Drink whenever someone says “Three Blossoms on the Crown”
~Drink each time the movie switches from live action to animation or vice versa
~Drink whenever you see gears turning