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Review: "Taichi Hero"

2013-01-10 16:56:07        Chinese Films

A still from the movie.

Story

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 (Angelababy) prepares to marry outsider Yang Luchan (Jayden Yuan) 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 (Eddie Peng), an employee of the British-owned East India Company that wants to build a railway line through the land.

Yuniang makes it clear to Luchan that the 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, Yuniang's elder brother, Zaiyang (William Feng), arrives with his wife Jin Yuner (Nikki Hsieh), but finds he's still spurned by their father, Chen Changxing (Tony Leung Ka-fai), the village's current grandmaster, because he cheated at martial arts when he was a boy.

Welcomed by the rest of the clan, Zaiyang explains to his younger brother Youzhi (Wu Di) that Chen-style martial arts, which were developed by 10th Grandmaster Chen Suole (Patrick Tse), were once misused by a pupil, and a Mad Monk (Daniel Wu) thereafter decreed the techniques had to remain within the clan, on pain of its obliteration. This was called the Bronze Bell Prophecy.

Meanwhile, 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. Changxing, however, suspects a secret plot by 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.

Review

Almost everything that was misconceived in Tai Chi Zero has been put right in Taichi Hero, the second part of Hong Kong actor-director Stephen FUNG's "steampunk", costume martial arts trilogy. Perhaps the difference in approach was always thus planned, or perhaps Fung 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 viewer much more in the settings and performances.

Apart from one sequence where martial artist-turned-actor Jayden YUAN (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 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 Angelababy as the female lead and compatriot William FENG (who popped up at the end of Zero) as her elder brother. Hong Kong's Tony LEUNG Ka-fai still dominates the picture as the village's grandmaster, with an effortless display of grizzled charisma, while fellow veteran YUEN Biao gives the closing some weight in an imaginative fight sequence between him and Jayden Yuan on top of divider screens in an imperial kitchen. Throughout, Sammo HUNG's contribution as action director is much more visible (and distinguished) in this film.

Among the other newcomers, Taiwan's Nikki HSIEH (Honey PuPu (2011), Make Up (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 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.

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