The Industrial Revolution and the subsequent alterations in the means of warfare are a central source of anxiety to many of the characters in Tai Chi Hero. Practitioners of the specialized tai chi style of kung fu in 19th-century China, the Chen family finds the purity of their methods to be little match for the gun-wielding British armies now invading their homeland in conjunction with their local lackeys. Only one of the family members, far more interested in mechanical tinkering than practicing kicks and punches since his childhood, embraces the new technology, constructing a flying machine (a sort of primitive not-quite airplane) that, in one of the film’s central set pieces, saves the day against musket-wielding enemies.
Stephen Fung’s film, though, betrays no such anxieties about cinematic modernity. Or if it does, it overcompensates for these worries with a heavily digital sheen, a full-throttled, playfully aggressive aesthetic that seeks to overwhelm the viewer with endless pop-up graphics, and a cavalier dismissal of any notion that action sequences need to rely on carefully staged positioning. Instead, and despite the supervision of legendary kung-fu actor turned choreographer Sammo Hung, the fight scenes are cut to shreds, making ample use of slow motion and “fun” on-screen titles that, for example, in one scene identify each combatant’s role in the conflict. The problem with that scene, and the rest of the action sequences, is that this strategy doesn’t help us follow the action any more clearly; it simply aims to overwhelm.
But overload is what Fung’s filmmaking is all about. A sequel to last year’s Tai Chi Zero, with which this movie was shot simultaneously, Tai Chi Hero is less about the many-stranded narrative, principally involving the maturation of dim-witted Lu Chan (Jayden Yuan) into a kung-fu master capable of defeating the baddies, than about the need to constantly stimulate the audience. Drawing most specifically on the aesthetic strategies of video games such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, particularly in a montage sequence in which a half-dozen fights are dispensed within two minutes of screen time, the film invites comparisons with such similarly influenced American films as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But whereas that film immersed the viewer so fully in its video game-inflected universe that its aesthetic choices seemed utterly necessary, Fung’s pop-up graphics and jazzy fight scenes feel part of an unwieldy mix in which the director just throws whatever half-baked conceits up on the screen he feels like.