Monday, July 7, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #94 - Tai Chi Master (1993, dir. Yuen Woo Ping)

The wuxia film is a long-standing Chinese film tradition dating back decades – a martial arts swordplay film that often incorporates elements of fantasy or mysticism into the stylized action sequences. But many know the genre a little better by a Westernized name associated with it: “wire fu,” after its combination of kung fu with impossible stuntwork made possible by the use of wires (sometimes visible in the films). Some of the classic films from the 1960’s and 1970’s made waves in the niche market here, but it wasn’t until 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that the genre came into broader notice outside the circles of people who lived and died for great kung fu films. But Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came at the tail end of a renaissance of wuxia films coming out of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, a renaissance that peaked in 1993, a year when nearly 20 films in the genre were released in those countries. And coming in at the tail end of that year was the third excellent 1993 film in the genre starring Jet Li, Tai Chi Master.
Following on the heels of Fong Sai Yuk and its sequel Fong Sai Yuk II, Tai Chi Master crafts a similarly structured period piece with our hero (played by Jet Li) working through plots of political treachery and fighting for the underdog with fiercely choreographed action married to comedy that at times lands firmly in slapstick. In that bonding of action and comedy, they honor a filmic tradition going back to Buster Keaton (minus the politics, of course) and avoid the dead spots that can drag these things down – never bogging down too much in plot mechanics (even when they get complicated) or sappy romance (silly romance is more how they play it). So, there’s certainly no reason to take them too seriously – they’re meant to be fun. And even though Jet Li’s character is in all three films aligned with a political underground against a domineering and violent ruling party, it doesn’t mean that it is necessarily an allegory exploring anxieties of Hong Kong residents of what will happen to Hong Kong when it goes under China’s control in 1997 in the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 – if so it’s certainly kept as subtext, never interfering with the pure kinetic energy of the films. And maybe they’re not political at all – the Fong Sai Yuk films are based on a legendary folk hero and Tai Chi Master’s good and bad guys are strictly drawn as good and evil from the get-go, there’s no nuance that suggests a deeper reading is necessary.
Tai Chi Master begins simply with a monastery training a courtyard full of men in kung fu while two children look on. One of them, Junbao, is a favorite of the school’s Master, while Tienbo is jealous of the younger Junbao’s senior status in the training, insisting (privately) on being called senior to Junbao in spite of the Master’s statement that Junbao is the senior student. While the two are friends, defeating a bully together (and getting in trouble for it) this jealousy colors all their actions and carries over to adulthood. Tienbo and Junbao are ultimately kicked out of the monastery due to fighting. When a competition rival cheats, Tienbo takes it as an opportunity to call all bets off and goes too far with his violence - the rival’s Master decides to take things out on Tienbo until Junbao intervenes and both end up fighting all the students. When their own master pulls them out and sends them off in to the world, he notes that Jun is kind while Tien is too aggressive and needs to find peace in his heart. Tienbo, who is introduced when one of his first lines is “My family was always too poor to afford meat. I have always wanted to try it,” is understandably ambitious, if too aggressive for the pacifism he is supposed to find in the martial arts. When he and Junbao are released into the world, he is happy to sell out friends and unleash his considerable skills to advance his lot in the world – upon seeing a cruel and hated governor he notes: “I wish I could be as privileged as he is.” But Junbao is on another course. After several people he knows die as a result of violence, he opts for another course, studying the more balanced art of Tai Chi to try to rectify what has happened. Of course this all ultimately steers a course toward a showdown between the two and it’s there that the film unleashes its most dramatic effects and choreographed fight sequences, playing even the tension of the fights for comedy sometimes and adding in the fantastic effects (superhuman strength and speed, flying, etc) that are common in some wuxia films. The film is directed by Yuen Woo Ping, the noted director/choreographer best known here for his work as action choreographer on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and kung fu choreographer on The Matrix, and he handles things every bit as well as the equally talented Corey Yuen (The Transporter, Lethal Weapon 4) handles similar duties on the Fong Sai Yuk films.
As always, the pleasure of the films lies in its choreographed movement, often as intricate as the most dazzling dance sequences of musicals, and its stylized approach to violence, as exciting (and often funny) as any adrenaline-pumper out there. And one final note ought to be given to the performances – Jet Li’s great turn as Junbao, Chin Siu-Ho appropriately driven and sinister as Tienbo and the great Michelle Yeoh as Junbao’s cohort in the underground group, in a typically smart, sly, witty performance.
- Patrick Brown

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