Tai-Chi Master - DVD review

Saturday, 24 April 2010 10:07

World-reknowned martial arts choreographer, Yuen Woo-Ping (“The Matrix trilogy) brings together two kung fu legends in this entertaining classic: Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh. Li stars as Junbao, a Shaolin monk learning his art alongside buddy Chin Bo (Chin Siu-Ho). The duo get on like a house on fire until they are expelled following a massive fight, and thereafter they quickly realise that their destinies stretch in opposite directions.

Junbao is determined to adhere to his training, using his skills to help people and become a better person. He is welcomed by a spirited group of resistance fighters rising up against tyrannical military forces, forces that are sucking the populace dry through extortionate taxation. On the other hand, Chin Bo is keen to progress, earn wealth and power. He joins the army and yearns to become a powerful general. Before long, their paths will converge once more.

Tai-Chi Master on DVDThough it is a period movie, “Tai-Chi Master” is not exactly a slave to its setting. Director Woo-Ping is primarily concerned with entertaining his audience, and he achieves this through almost non-stop action, humour and a simple, whirlwind plot. Despite dealing with some very serious subject matter (repression, greed, murder), the movie does not like to dwell on such matters, preferring to dazzle the viewer with stunning fight scenes.

Early on in the film, Junbao and Chin Bo are supposed to be taking part in a competition to see which Shaolin monks are ready to move on to the next stage of their training. Outrage at another student’s cheating triggers the aforementioned fight. This is no ordinary battle, though, as the two stars unfairly face the combined might of the rest of the students, all armed with bamboo poles. Despite the odds, they hold their own in a scene highly reminiscent of Woo-Ping’s later Burly Brawl between Neo and all of those Agent Smiths in “Matrix Reloaded”.

There is no CGI here, though – these are all real human beings interacting with each other! After seeing the magnificence of their kung fu skills, you will really believe that these two young men can overcome the seemingly insurmountable.

As is mentioned in one of the special features, Woo-Ping’s fight scenes have an uncanny ability to innovate, entertain and hit a unique balance between danger and humour. Generally speaking, the central characters appear to be untouchable but the action never goes so far that you stop fearing for their wellbeing. Many of the moves are hysterically daft, such as when Junbao head-butts opponents by bouncing upside down on his head, or when characters fly horizontally through the air, through wooden tables and assorted other furniture.

The movie never loses its credibility, however, because these crazy, wire-assisted moves are mixed up with more grounded combat.

Also of interest is the fact that some of the fighting takes place in the vertical axis as well as the more common horizontal one. Characters clamber over and smash through wooden staircases and platforms. One standout scene sees Junbao and Chin Bo punching and kicking telegraph pole-sized logs out of a structure on top of which Michelle Yeoh’s character is tied up. As more and more logs get dislodged, so the whole assembly starts to topple like a giant game of Jenga.

The movie’s plentiful humour is fairly typical of the genre – silly but endearing. Key examples include one resistance fighter playing dead when surrounded by hundreds of enemy fighters, but struggling to do so when they keep stepping on his outstretched hands. Time and again he winces in pain before quickly realising the game will be up unless he keeps still. Slapstick accidental punching of friendlies abounds, but it is delivered with sufficient lightness of touch to avoid becoming tedious.

The film’s battle between good and evil is unquestionably of the pantomime variety. Forces of darkness have camp English accents or sport black armour and scowls. The characters on the side of light are slightly more involving, but in the context of this movie it really does not matter. We are here to see the two sides duke it out, and Woo-Ping knows how to deliver a decent knock-out punch.

“Tai-Chi Master” (1993) is out now on DVD courtesy of the prolific Cine Asia label. The main feature is a sprightly 91 minutes approx, with a certificate ‘18’. The so-so special features include a featurette on the birthplace of Tai Chi (including some history and demonstrations), an interview with Chin Siu-Ho, a couple of discussions from martial arts fans/critics Brett Ratner and Elvis Mitchell on Yuen Woo-Ping and  the Jet Li/Michelle Yeoh pairing, plus some trailers. The audio options include 5.1 Dolby Digital Cantonese and English.

For once, the English dubbing is pretty good, and well pitched for a movie with this light tone. The DVD retails for £17.99 or less from www.culttvstore.com

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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