Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.
It hooked me from the prologue, flashing back in time to the birth of the main character (not yet the "hero") Lu Chen. Told silent-movie style, it rushes through the early stages of his life with a mix of narration and captions and title cards at breakneck pace, which only slightly slows down when we're thrown back into the present. The best captions breathlessly reinvent an old Shaw Brothers convention, where an actor's first appearance on screen is accompanied by a caption with their name ("Ti Lung as Shi Jingsi" and the like). Director Stephen Fung does the same thing, introducing each actor, but with the excitement of a true movie fan. The cards are exclaimed: "It's Shu Qi as The Freak's mother!" and sometimes accompanied by parenthetical bits of trivia "It's Leung Siu-lung (70s kung fu star)" or "It's Jayden Yuan as The Freak! (2008 Wushu National Champion)!". Then the title sequences comes along and it's an animated comic book. Swoon.
Lu Chen is born with a freakish growth on his forehead. When hit, it turns him into a scary kung fu demon that can defeat anyone in his path, but drains his life force away. To counter this, he's sent to Chen village to learn their kung fu style, which can reverse the damage. Unfortunately, Chen village doesn't share their kung fu with outsiders, so Lu hangs around and gets beaten up a lot. Eventually he's helped by The Other Tony Leung, a mysterious tinkerer and joins Angelababy (weird name, cute girl, solid actress) as she tries to save the town from a demonic railroad-machine operated by her ex-boyfriend. Because this all takes place in a steampunk 19th century, as the Qing Dynasty is desperately trying to hold out against the modernizing forces of Western Imperialism. This is just the first half of the story. In part two, we see how Lu Chen goes from zero to hero.
Picking up right where Tai Chi Zero left off, we find the railroad company defeated (for now) and Lu Chen and Angelababy married so that he can learn the Chen-style kung fu and reverse the dangerous effects of the weird growth on his forehead. A mysterious stranger arrives in town who turns out to be The Other Tony Leung's eldest son, Angelababy's brother. He, like the ex-boyfriend in the first film, is more interested in technology than kung fu, building elaborate steampunk devices packed with neat gears and levers to mimic fighting techniques, and even a stylized airplane contraption.
The central emotional conflict of this film thus mirrors that of the first one. In both movies, the villain is turned villainous after being ostracized by the Chens: the community as a whole in the first one (the ex-boyfriend is an outsider and thus not allowed to learn the kung fu, and Angelababy is the only one that actually likes the poor guy anyway, though she really does like him); the (nuclear) family in the second (The Other Tony Leung never approved of his son's scientific interests, shaming him for his failures to learn kung fu and appalled when the boy used machines to make up for his athletic deficiencies).
Similarly, the plots structures are inverted. The first film follows a conventional structure: hastily explained backstory leading to a long development section that slowly builds to an explosive climax followed by a brief epilogue. The second starts with the development and builds to the big battle scene (Qing troops invade the village). But this climax comes less than two-thirds into the film. The remaining forty minutes is a slow dissipation of the action, as Leung reaches one kind of epiphany and Lu Chen another. That's not to say there are no further fight scenes. There is one big one, but where you'd expect bombs and machines, building upon the expectations set by the battle halfway through, instead we get a one-on-one showdown. And it isn't even a particularly violent one at that.
In order to enlist the Qing governor's help, Angelababy and Lu Chen have to defeat the reigning Ba Gua kung fu champion (the reason why isn't really important). So Lu Chen fights him, in the governor's kitchen, as his meal is being prepared. The kitchen is subdivided by a bunch of iron railings forming cubicles, so naturally the two men fight on top of them, in time-honored kung fu movie tradition (see Fong Sai Yuk or Iron Monkey). Oh, and the Ba Gua champion is none other than Yuen Biao, the only person in either film seemingly who doesn't get a caption (if he did, I missed it). Of course, Yuen Biao doesn't need an introduction.
The fight is a thoroughly friendly affair (choreographed as all the action in the two films is, by Sammo Hung), and ends with the governor giving Chen-style kung fu a new name ("Tai Chi"). And with that, the movie comes to an end. Most kung fu films follow a normal, linear structure, quest or training narratives that slowly build to a big finale. But every once in a while, one takes a different path. The A Touch of Zen-model, where the action becomes increasingly abstract, with a corresponding change in story structure, mimicking the character's increasing enlightenment. Tai Chi Hero loses much of the fun of the first film, the captions aren't as crazy, the action not as ridiculous, the emotional beats played more seriously. It becomes more grown up, deeper, more profound. The two films, twin halves of a single work, start with a breathless exclamation mark and end with a deep exhalation.