It was just a week or two ago when I reviewed Stephen Fung's Tai Chi Zero, the first film in a fun and sprawling attempt to revive Hong Kong's 90s martial arts genre. In a unique twist, the second part of the trilogy followed almost immediately, upholding a strong momentum. The question is of course whether Fung would be able to keep the strengths of Tai Chi Zero alive while further evolving the saga in Tai Chi Hero.
Fung wouldn't be able to just pull the same tricks as he did with Zero. What came off as fresh and novel in the first film would feel like mere repetition and utter lack of creativity this time around, ultimately bearing down on the quality of the entire series. Fung obviously realized this and while there are still some references to some of the quirkier details of Zero (like the on-screen character introductions), Hero takes a slightly different route.
While Hero features less in-your-face gimmickry, it has the advantage that it can skip all the introductions and dive right into the action. Hero might be a bit more traditional in style, it makes up for that with a selection of awesome action scenes and stunning set pieces. The story starts with a quick recap and blasts off where it ended in part 1. There is no noteworthy time skip, just the logical continuation of the story.
Yang finds himself married to Niang, the village elder's daughter. This grants him the right to stay in the village and learn the family's peculiar style of martial arts, but the village people are still weary of Yang and consider him an outsider. Things get even worse when Niang's long lost brother returns to the village, eager to upset the village peace. Yang is a perfect target for his plans and by revitalizing the belief in an age old curse laid upon the villagers he is able to upset the entire population.
Visually little has changed. The visual trickery is not as outspoken or outright flashy compared to the first film, instead Fung used his budget to create more steampunk machinery and bigger and more detailed set pieces. As a result the film looks stunning, featuring slick special effects, great sequences of destruction and impeccable looking wire-fu fights. Fung's agile and sometimes quirky camera further helps in leaving a strong visual impression.
Sadly the tone of the soundtrack remained virtually unchanged. The score is once again dominated by a selection of somewhat uneasy rock tracks that fail to ignite a real sense of adrenaline. The lacking score isn't a real issue as there are plenty of other things to focus on while watching the film, but it's still a missed opportunity to make the action sequences that little extra special. I guess Fung isn't going to change his approach for the third and final installment, but one can always hope of course.
The main cast is back in full force, Xiaochao is visibly more at ease in front of the camera, Tony Leung Ka Fai is having the time of his life and Angelababy once again shoulders the more dramatic moments in Tai Chi Hero. Feng Shaofeng joins the cast and brings with him a little extra intrigue, while Daniel Wu and Nikki Hsieh (Make Up, One Day, Honey PuPu) make noteworthy cameos. No award-winning performances, but the film consist of a very solid cast nonetheless.
Tai Chi Hero ends with a classic finale, somewhat reminiscent of the Iron Monkey end fight. While most action scenes in Tai Chi Hero are quite big in scale, the finale is a simple yet terrificly orchestrated one-on-one fight sequence, flawlessly executed. Once again Fung is helped by a more than generous budget but he handles the money well and delivers one of the best fight scenes in recent memory. If that wasn't enough, he also teases with one of the craziest-looking steampunk contraptions I have every seen. An iconic ending shot that will definitely keep me warm until the final episode arrives.
Tai Chi Hero tones down the gimmickry from the first film just a little, replacing it with more and bigger action scenes. It's a smart move that avoids too much repetition while still keeping a fresh and playful atmosphere. The production values are high, the acting is the right kind of tongue-in-cheek and the action scenes sparkle. Fung created a perfect sequel that leaves you begging for the final act. If you liked Zero then I'm quite sure this film won't disappoint you in the least.