Movie reviews: U.S. releases of The Assassins (w/ Chow Yun Fat) and Tai Chi Zero (Scott Pilgrim + steam punk + kung fu)

One of the things I really miss about editing Giant Robot magazine is assembling the reviews. Did you know that I actually purchased most of the movies that were listed in the TV Party section? I can’t really justify doing that any more, so I was stoked to receive a couple of interesting screeners from WellgoUSA. Back-to-back viewings of Tai Chi Zero and The Assassins doesn’t quite replace double features at the Kuo Hwa–which got me into Asian movies to begin with–but it’s as close as I get these days.

While both my friend Daniel Wu and his buddy Stephen Fung’ have found success onscreen as actors, they’ve turned their collective energy toward the other side of the camera with the goal of making more interesting, exciting, and youthful movies in China and Hong Kong. Tai Chi Zero is the first release from their production company, Diversion Pictures. Director Fung lovingly imbues the kung fu movie genre (cira early ’90s with choreography by Sammo Hung) with steam punk and video game elements (analog robots and Scott Pilgrim-meets-Pop Up Video graphics), and populates the cast with old-school and new jack names (from Tony Leung Kar-fai and Shu Qi to AngelaBaby and Yuan Xiaochao). The idea of a remote, insular village where everyone from grannies to little girls is a martial arts master is well-played, and the steam-powered weapon of mass destruction is very cool indeed. As for the protagonist, he is played by the real-life wushu champ Yuan, and is rock-solid steady and on the verge of likable. We’ll see how his charisma points add up in the next installment… Some have criticized the first part of this series for its lightning-fast pace and showy aesthetics, but I thought it was lively and cool (i.e. not boring like many Chinese epics) and look forward to the sequel in which Wu will show up as a beard-stroking villain.

No one will ever accuse The Assassins of lacking gravity, having shallow characters, or being too flashy. Indeed, for a movie about the historic warlord Cao Cao and the assassination attempts he faces, there is minimal action and no stone is left unturned in terms of plot. It painstakingly depicts Chow Yun Fat’s character’s caution and cold-bloodedness while also revealing his patriotism and need for understanding when surrounded by sycophants, backstabbers, and idiots. That he chooses to entrust a courtesan (played by Liu Yifei) who was been trained to kill him is interesting. Although Hong Kong cinema freaks might be disappointed that Chow doesn’t kick ass as he would in a John Woo or Ringo Lam flick, they will appreciate the actor’s fully developed sense of cool and control. There is even less melodrama than swordsmanship, and the movie might have actually benefited from either. I found it always epic and often enthralling, but short of riveting. A dark sense of humor or simply a release of tension would have been welcome.

Tai Chi Zero is available on DVD/VOD on January 22. The Assassins is available on DVD/VOD on January 8. I suggest watching the former with a boba drink and shrimp chips, the latter with hot tea and White Rabbit candy.