This is just a taste of the cross-cultural steampunk/martial arts/comic-book Sino-Anglo mash-up that makes "Tai Chi Zero" so visually entertaining. But, unless you're a die-hard fan of Chinese action films, its considerable charms -- "Tai Chi Zero" is littered with in-jokes and references to other movies -- may prove exhausting before its relatively brief 95-minute running time is over.
Lu Chan was born with an uncanny sense of kung fu but he wants to learn the legendary style taught in the remote village of Chen. One problem: the residents don't teach their ways to outsiders. As luck would have it though, the British East India Company and their Chinese allies want to bring a rail line and Western technology to the town, whether its citizens want it or not. If Lu Chan can help Chen maintain its pure way of life, maybe they'll let him in on their secrets.
Fung has assembled a star-studded cast and crew for followers of Chinese pop culture -- Xiaochao is a real-life wushu (martial-arts) champ, the action choreography is from frequent Jackie Chan collaborator Sammo Hung, while co-stars Tony Leung Ka Fai ("Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame") and Qi Shu ("The Transporter") even have a bit of a profile in the West. There are brief cameos from other notables in the world of martial arts and Chinese films. No doubt, this has helped "Tai Chi Zero" become a box-office sensation in China and Taiwan.
It may not be enough for others who may be put off by the stiff acting (especially when the actors speak in stilted English) or Fung's frenetic pace. But no one can say that "Tai Chi Zero" is boring; many of the fight scenes are wildly entertaining. It will be intriguing to see what Fung does in the future in which his colorful visual sensibility can be married to something less lightweight.
If you do make it to the end, be sure to stay through the credits. Not only is there a coda but also clips from the already completed sequel.
'Tai Chi Zero' -- 3 stars
No MPAA rating (mild language, martial-arts violence)
Running time: 1:35; in Mandarin with English subtitles.