Tai Chi Master [太極張三豐] (1993)
Starring Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Chin Siu Ho, Fennie Yuen, Yuen Cheung Yan, Lau Shun, Yu Hai, Sun Jian Kui
Directed by Yuen Woo Ping
Expectations: High. Haven’t seen this one in years and remember really liking it.
Wow. I was not prepared for the visual assault provided by Yuen Woo Ping’s Tai Chi Master. I had seen this a couple of times as a teenager, but it’s been so many years and for whatever reason, my mind was a near-empty slate in regards to this film. That being the case there wasn’t as much nostalgia as I had expected, as I remembered only very random things sprinkled throughout the film, making it almost like watching a brand new movie. In any case, Tai Chi Master is a highly entertaining kung-fu fantasy flick with a ridiculous amount of excellent wire-assisted fights.
Your enjoyment of wire-fu is essential to liking Tai Chi Master. Back in the day, I always greatly preferred your standard hand-to-hand fight to an overblown, high-flying one. These days I have softened quite a bit on that and I’ve come to fully appreciate what wirework can bring to a kung-fu film. My recent viewing of the Shaw Brothers classic Shaolin Intruders fully solidified me as a wire fan and Tai Chi Master is another great example of wirework done extremely well.
The film opens with the meeting of Tian Bao (Chin Siu Ho) and Jun Bao (Jet Li). Jun Bao is introduced as the senior student but due to his smaller size, Tian Bao bullies him into calling him senior. The two become friends and do everything together, sharing in chores, punishment and training. Tian Bao’s violent lust for power informs his every action, while Jun Bao’s focus is more on helping others and trying to be good. They are opposites but inseparable, a human yin-yang. As they age and become more rebellious, Tian Bao constantly tries to pull one over on the masters, but one day it all backfires and the two friends are thrown out of the temple.
This relationship is the heart of the film and its story. I’m not going to lie and tell you the emotional depth is anywhere on par with superior Hong Kong films like Once Upon a Time in China, Ip Man or even The Killer. The story may revolves around this brotherly relationship, but it’s all fairly superficial and not a whole lot more than excuses to have crazy fights. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the story and it works well within the context of the film, but it is more akin to your standard blockbuster style of writing that has a tendency to be a bit shallow. But the great thing about Tai Chi Master is that it knows this about itself and never tries to fool you into thinking it is more than it is. In true blockbuster form, the incredible action and sheer number of insane fights coming at you should be enough to keep you entertained. In fact, there were so many fights that I found myself as fatigued as the combatants on screen towards the end of the picture. Tai Chi Master is really a film that demands multiple viewings in order to properly take it all in, as a single run through will leave you spinning like the Tasmanian Devil.
For those not following my website and my occasional Hong Kong film reviews contained there, I have recently restarted my Hong Kong film obsession. Fans of such films are familiar with certain conventions used throughout the industry that just aren’t prevalent in Western cinema. Of course there’s the realistic stunts, the well-shot fight sequences, the oddly placed humor. Tai Chi Master has all of those in spades, but they aren’t what I speak of. The thing that I hadn’t run into in this new phase of my Hong Kong obsession was one that I knew would be inevitable. The eunuchs. Tai Chi Master marks the return of the eunuch to my film vocabulary and what a welcome return it is. The eunuch in this film, played by Sun Jian Kui, is absolutely fantastic and such fun to watch. Towards the end of the film, he has a rather gnarly swordfight with one of the heroes that is easily one of my favorite scenes in the film. Yeah! Eunuchs! I didn’t realize how much I had missed them. My teenage brain was unable to fully comprehend why a castrated man gained supernatural powers, but I accepted it. These days, I welcome it with open arms.
Tai Chi Master is a lot more comic than I remember it being, so initially it was sort of off-putting, but after I got into the groove I really enjoyed myself. Jet Li is great in his role as Jun Bao, and gets to show off his wonderful martial skill at the absolute highlight of his Hong Kong career. The scenes when he loses his grasp on reality and talks with the ducks are funny and completely different than any other role Jet has ever played. If that’s not enough to sell you on the film, Michelle Yeoh busts in with a fiery performance and proves why she is one of the top female martial artists of the silver screen. Director Yuen Woo Ping does a good job with the camera, complimenting his inspired fight choreography well. My favorite moment of choreography in the film is by far the fight between Tian Bao and Jun Bao on the log structure. I greatly enjoy fights where the stakes are constantly ratcheted up and the fighters must compensate, and this fight completely fits that bill.
I do wish that there was more actual Tai Chi in the film called Tai Chi Master. One of the few things I did remember was when Jet circled the water with his hands and noticed how it deflected the hard ball by being fluid and using the ball’s energy. These moments of martial creation are fantastic, and while I realize they happen when they do for a reason, somehow I think I would be more satisfied if they happened earlier and we got to see more on screen Tai Chi. Oh well, a minor complaint for an otherwise pleasing film. Highly recommended to wire-fu fans, as well as Jet Li fans. I wouldn’t start here if you’ve never seen a Hong Kong film though, as I think this one might be a bit too weird to win a new fan over.