In an acting debut that deliberately doesn’t require him to act much, wushu champ Yuan Xiaochao plays Lu Chan, nicknamed “The Freak” from birth because a horn-like protrusion on the side of his forehead. When pushed, his eyes go milky and, for a brief time, he hulks out with brute force until blood spurts out his nose and he passes out.
This makes Lu Chan an ace up the sleeve on the battlefield, but a doctor warns him that it’s draining his life force, and urges him to learn internal kung fu, lest he descend to an early grave. Thus, Lu Chan travels to Chen Village for tutelage, but they refuse to teach outsiders.
Not coincidentally, his arrival coincides with a forward-thinking railway engineer (Eddie Peng) being shamed and, as a result, decides to take his frustrations out on the village via his “iron monster,” a steampunk behemoth of a vehicle, like something straight outta Wild Wild West (the good TV show, not the terrible movie).
Directed by Gen-X Cops actor Stephen Fung, Tai Chi Zero is a tremendous amount of fun — the most fun I’ve had watching an Asian film since Tsui Hark’s 2011 smash, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, with which Zero shares a producer and two screenwriters. It has a healthy sense of humor and a playful energy that come across as especially refreshing after consuming so many of the continent’s grim-faced costume epics. The instances of animation and pop-up graphics demonstrate just how seriously the film refuses to take itself, introducing actors as they appear: “It’s Xiong Xin Xin as Uncle Qin! He was Ghost Leg Seven in Once Upon a Time in China!”
Skip the annoying rap video on the disc’s extras and just watch the movie again, this time with friends who could use some cultural enrichment. The end credits include a trailer for its own sequel, the consecutively shot Tai Chi Hero. Cannot wait. —Rod Lott
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• Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame Blu-ray review