Tai Chi II aka Tai Chi Boxer (Tai ji quan)
Hong Kong (1996) Dir. Yuen Woo-Ping
In case you are wondering what happened to Tai Chi I, well it doesn’t exactly exist…sort of. It was supposed to be a follow up of sorts to Yuen Woo-Ping’s 1993 film Tai Chi Master starring Jet Li (originally released over here in dubbed form under the misleading title Twin Warriors), but all they have in common is Tai-Chi in the title – hence the alternative Tai Chi Boxer.
Even then Tai Chi barely features in the film, and neither does boxing come to that! This rather energetic but basic martial arts barnstormer is set in the early 20th century as China gradually allows a western influence into its society while others still cling to the traditional way of life. Young Jackie (Jacky Wu aka Wu Jing) is one such person having devoted his life to learning the bespoke martial arts techniques of his strict but kindly father Yeung Shan-Wu (Yu Hai).
During a celebration parade at which Jackie starts a fight when he prevents the live sacrifice of two young children(!), he meets Rose (Christy Chung), a recent returnee from America who also objects to the sacrifice. They strike up a friendship despite Rose being engaged to the pompous customs officer Lam Wing (Mark Cheng) and while putting the world to rights they inadvertently uncover an opium smuggling racket which Lam and Rose’s father Officer Tsao (Shun Lau) are bullied into keeping schtum about.
Yuen Woo-Ping is one of the most prolific and finest choreographers/ action directors in the world of martial arts film, having worked with many of the greats including Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat. Yuen’s impressive credentials have seen him expand his horizons in Hollywood’s direction, bringing his expertise to such fare as The Matrix and Kill Bill.
As a straight up director Yuen has been responsible for a number of classic films from the golden era of martial arts films, although they have all been set in the past. There is a sense of irony in this film being centred around the modern influence of western cultures in a position to usurp the old Chinese traditions, as Yuen was being superseded by younger directors who saw the writing on the wall for classic martial arts flicks
A running gag of this film sees Jackie’s mother (a fabulous comic turn from action queen Sibelle Hu) tell his father to stay out of fights and let Jackie handle them as the “younger generation are better than the older generation”. It doesn’t seem much of a coincidence that Yuen didn’t direct another film after this until 2010 – neither is it a coincidence that despite being made in 1996 it could have easily been anytime in the prior twenty years, such is the dated aesthetic of the film.
The film also suffers from a jaunty and uneven narrative, hampered by the brusque editing that jumps from one scene to the next without room to breathe, typified in the classic works of the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest. The script is equally to blame, incorporating plot points which are subsequently forgotten. Jackie has a brother (or cousin?) for the first fifteen minutes of the film who then vanishes only to resurface at the finale.
Elsewhere a group of US educated Chinamen serving as early opposition for Jackie become less significant as the film progresses as does Rose’s political endeavours which were never clearly defined in the first place. And as for the opium smuggling caper, fronted by an unintentionally comedic British baddie Mr. Smith (British martial artist Darren Shahlavi, who passed away earlier this year aged just 42), is less a crucial plot point and more a means to establish an antagonist for Jackie.
Perhaps we should give screenwriter Sze Yeung-ping a break as he does try to convey a “Drugs are bad” message regarding opium, although using as a comedic tool renders this rhetoric as credible as South Park’s. Jackie and Rose try to wean Rose’s father off the stuff then find his officers are also whacked out on it, claiming it is doing them wonders as their melancholic expressions, missing teeth and unhealthy pallor clearly attest.
Humour plays a big part in this film, with most of the cast playing the fool. As mentioned earlier Jackie’s mother is a welcome comic presence feeding off every one she encounters while Jackie himself introduces break dancing to early 20th century China during a Tango with Rose at a ball, in which his gymnastic turn is disguised as his own martial arts infused dance technique!
But as ever with kung fu flicks it is all about the fights and Yuen Woo-Ping doesn’t disappoint. Be it a friendly battle between Jackie’s dad and long time rival Wong, Great Kick of the North (Billy Chow) who returns to avenge himself against Jackie at regular intervals, to the climactic clash between our hero and the robust Mr. Smith, we are never more than a few minutes away from another good old punch-up. Yuen is in fine creative form and ensures each fight is different, playing up to the various skills of the cast, made up of experienced and legitimately ranked fighters.
This was of course pre-CGI so the emphasis was on close contact combat and wire fu, along with the incredible gymnastic dexterity of the fighters and their inventive use of their surroundings and fixtures. It is said the final scrap between Jackie and Smith took sixteen days to film, and in typical Yuen fashion is a spectacular fast paced, multi-faceted affair in which anything that isn’t nailed down is either a weapon or a landing mat.
It is highly improbable that Tai Chi II/Tai Chi Boxer will ever be mistaken for a martial arts classic, but as a quick fix of high kicking fun for fans and aficionados alike this is 90 minutes you won’t regret!