There are few types of action films that I enjoy more than the historical epic. Drunken Master II, Gladiator and 300—all are sweeping, emotional roller coasters packed with flawed heroes, grandiose visuals and beautiful violence. Sadly, many critics love to complain about historical movies, saying they’re wildly inaccurate and only distort the past.
What the naysayers fail to remember is that films “loosely based on a true story” aim to be fun distractions, not documentaries. If you want a history lesson, pick up a textbook or buy a time machine.
That said, Tai-Chi Master has little concern for maintaining any sort of historical integrity regarding its title character, Zhang San Feng, founder of tai chi chuan. But like I said, it’s all about the entertainment value. And Jet Li provides plenty of that as the star of the movie, which has been given a pristine North American DVD re-release thanks to Dragon Dynasty.
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Jet Li plays the eponymous character who learns chuan fa at the storied Shaolin Temple. There, he befriends a fellow child monk, Tian Bao, whose aggression, arrogance and disobedience get them both booted before they reach adulthood.
Soon, their paths split, with the conniving Tian joining the corrupt imperial army and the pious Zhang teaming up with a secret society of rebels, including Siu Lin (played by Michelle Yeoh). Eventually, Zhang and Tian reunite—but as enemies on the battlefield.
The betrayal of his Shaolin brother sends Zhang into a drunken downward spiral that’s topped with a bit of psychosis. Combining his Shaolin upbringing with Taoist principles, Zhang breaks out of his mental funk when he starts tossing a ball, slapping some water and twirling some leaves. Reaching a sort of martial arts nirvana, Zhang takes on his archrival with renewed vigor and a revolutionary fighting style he dubs tai chi.
So is this the true account of how Zhang invented tai chi chuan? Hardly.
But screenwriter Ip Kwong Kim and director Yuen Woo-ping take some creative license because—as is the case with many Chinese folk heroes—it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Zhang. Who he was and when he lived aren’t clear and probably won’t ever be, although I’m willing to bet that he didn’t create tai chi by playing with toys or foliage.
As silly as its script sounds, Tai-Chi Master—called Twin Warriors in the West—is a fun if lightweight wuxia movie. It’s a small step above the 1990s glut of “ponytail” actioners that Hong Kong churned out. Much of the credit for that goes to Yuen Woo-ping, who, along with his brother Yuen Cheung Yan and Ku Huen Chiu, did the fight choreography.
Together with Jet Li, the four of them craft what’s become known as Yuen Woo-ping’s trademark “wire fu” screen-fighting style: hyper-athletic wushu combined with nimble gymnastics and a whole lot of wire work.
In one of the movie’s best set pieces, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh and some rebels square off against 100 soldiers in a smorgasbord of action. The freedom fighters wield poles, broadswords, a three-sectional staff and even a cudgel to beat back the troops’ spears in a whirling display of chaotic violence.
Yuen Woo-ping gives each fighter a distinctive style depending on his or her weapon, and he adds plenty of wire flash for good measure. Unfortunately, his penchant for over-the-top action undoes some of the brilliance of his combat choreography.
Witness exhibit A: In one sequence, Jet Li uses only head butts to take out a squad of imperial troops. Pretty innovative, right? Yep, until the scene devolves into Family Guy territory when Jet Li leaps 10 feet into the air, drops headfirst like a bomb onto the belly of a fallen soldier—only to rebound up and onto another prone soldier like a human pogo stick.
Cartoony combat aside, Yuen Woo-ping is a genius at filming fight scenes tailored to the star. In Tai-Chi Master, he uses wide angles to capture Jet Li’s speed and agility while opting for the occasional slow-motion angle to show off Yeoh’s gracefulness and flexibility.
It’s no wonder Rush Hour director Brett Ratner calls Yuen Woo-ping “the greatest martial arts director of all time” in Meditations on the Master, a bonus featurette in which Brett Ratner and critic Elvis Mitchell explain why Yuen Woo-ping is a filmmaking demigod.
The DVD has other noteworthy extras, including an informative 20-minute interview with co-star Chin Siu Ho, who reveals his own kung fu training as a youngster and tells how he broke into the industry. And The Birthplace of Tai Chi is a 15-minute documentary about the Chen family village, where the Chen style of the art blossomed.
In truth, the movie features very little tai chi chuan. The only authentic moves shown in the 1993 flick come as bookends, with Jet Li and his students performing the yang-style long form in unison at the beginning and end of the movie. Still, I can’t complain because whenever I watch it, I’m not expecting an accurate chronicle of history; I’m looking for a dynamic cinematic retelling of history.
(Patrick Vuong is a freelance journalist, screenwriter and martial artist based in Orange County, California.)