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A region 2 DVD review of TAI CHI BOXER / TAI JI QUAN by Slarek
 

Anyone familiar with the theories of Structuralism will have encountered the concept of binary oppositions, the idea that human thought and even culture is organised as a series of diametric opposites. This is most evident in religion, where notions of good and bad, heaven and hell, God and the Devil offer no middle ground, just a straight choice between paths to damnation or salvation. Once upon a time folk tales used to be built on similarly unfussy foundations – witches were ugly and evil, princes were handsome and brave, princesses were beautiful and pure, and dragons were monstrous and had to be slain for their sins.

Such oppositional notions made their way into early cinema, notoriously in the black hat/white hat villains and goodies of early westerns. Times change, and long ago the notion of defining characters in such extreme and uncomplicated terms seemed archaic and almost childishly simplistic. That doesn't stop people doing it, of course – tabloid newspapers make daily headline news out of casting people as cartoonishly evil or tear-jerkingly saintly, and let's not forget the ease with which certain politicians can cast an entire nation as monsters with few carefully chosen words of rhetoric. Astonishingly, people still respond to it like programmed lemmings, waving their flags and calling for the destruction of entire peoples or religions. Hell, maybe those Structuralists have a point after all.

This societal attitude is still sometimes reflected in Hollywood movies, which too often like their bad guys to be impossibly evil and preferably foreign, and their good guys to be young, handsome, clean shaven and all-American. Which is all well and fine for the tabloid crowd, but a bit much for those of us that expect our movie characters to have, well, some depth. I like to include myself in that particular clan, but for some reason all of this flies out of the window the moment I sit down in front of a martial arts film. It remains to this day the one genre whose rules demand that the good guys will almost always be sweetly innocent and the bad guys can be as evil and one-dimensional as you care to make them.

Tai Chi Boxer is a perfect case in point. Now this is not a work from the 1970s, where such simplistic plotting was an expedient short-cut to the punch-ups the punters had handed money over to see, but from 1996, a mere four years before the altogether more sophisticated characterisations and plotting of Crouching Tiger et al. And yet our hero Jackie is the very personification of smiling and innocent goodness – he studies hard, treats people with politeness and respect, falls for the beautiful girl, learns to dance, and is even magnanimous towards his rival in love. The bad guy, however... well let me list the things that mark Mr. Smith as a kung fu movie baddie:

  • He deals in drugs;
  • He's foreign (English, in fact);
  • He dresses in western clothing (a tuxedo, no less);
  • He has a beard;
  • He scowls at everyone;
  • He threatens nice people;
  • He kills one of the good guys;
  • He's a dangerous fighter;
  • He uses a gun when others are restricted to fists and feet.

Simplistic though this may seem, some of it is at least rooted in cultural history. Tai Chi Boxer is set in the 1830s, shortly before the notorious Opium Wars between England and China. Opium was widely used in China at the time and was not a home-grown vice but one imported into the country by the English, and part of a trade disagreement that in 1840 led to England sending in their warships and pounding the hell out of the technologically inferior Chinese. In 1842, China was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking, which was weighted heavily in England's favour and gave them almost ludicrously advantageous trading powers. It remains an inglorious moment in English history (we've got quite a few of these) and a painful memory for the Chinese. And thus our bad guy, with his English nationality, western clothing and ruthless drug trafficking, taps into a moment in cultural history where he really can be seen as a bastard. Even the gun is representative of English military superiority against the more honourable and more elegant fighting methods of the Chinese townspeople. That doesn't make him a sophisticated character, not by a long shot, but does at least provide some context for his inclusion.

Other historical elements are also woven into the plot, some of which reflect more recent attitudes and events. Jackie determines to free his future father-in-law and most of the police force from their drug addiction through a combination of cold turkey, exercise and spiritual purity, while the western educated students who dress in blazers and boaters and have cut of their queues (long pigtails whose adoption was enforced by the Manchu rulers as a sign of dynastic loyalty), distribute leaflets promoting democracy, itself reflecting events in modern China that led to the Tianenman Square massacre in 1989.

All of which provides some interesting layering for a film that is nevertheless, like all genre works, still primarily about the fights and the triumph of good over evil. And if it's the fights you came for then you'll have few complaints. The Tai Chi fighting style featured here has a grace and elegance that the camera loves, especially when delivered by the young Jacky Wu, co-director and fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping's new young hopeful who has yet to find the widespread success of predecessors Jackie Chan and Donny Yen. Which is a shame, because despite his ever-present wide-eyed smile and almost infuriating optimism, he leaps and moves and kicks with the best of them, and brings an energy and almost balletic grace to the fights that could well prove as distinctive a calling card as Tony Jaa's Muay Thai. And he's not alone – 20-year genre veteran Yu Hai, kick boxing champion Billy Chow and self-taught British film fighter Darren Shahlavi all get to show their stuff in a series of breathlessly inventive fight sequences, which build to a terrific final warehouse battle in which East and West go head-to-head in a dizzying display of flying fists, feet, bodies and wood.

This is all impressively showcased by some eye-catching camera placement and sometimes kinetic hand-held cinematography that plants you right in the middle of the action. On the commentary track, Bey Logan remarks on the lack of insert shots due to the low budget and hurried shooting schedule, but I found it refreshing to see fights playing out without being broken up into a blizzard of high-speed cut-aways, better showcasing the awesome skills of Yeun Woo-ping and his performers.

In the end Tai Chi Boxer is martial arts actioner, and on that level it really delivers. Just as well really, as it would struggle to get by on a script that more than once barks the obvious – halfway through their first screen fight, his good friend asks Jackie how they can take on so many attackers, only to be told cheerily that they should "use the martial arts we secretly learned!" Oh, right.

sound and vision

1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the picture at times looks as well as plays like that of a film from the 1970s, the daytime exteriors having a very slightly washed-out look, though scenes set either inside or at night look fine, and at its best the contrast and colour are very good. As usual with Hong Kong legends transfers, the print is virtually spotless.

If the picture has an occasionally retro feel, the soundtrack harks back even further, having a limited dynamic range and sounding almost tinny in places. Despite being a 5.1 track, the dialogue and sound effects are located largely iun the middle of the centre speaker, through music tends to spread wider. Clarity is never a problem, though. There is also an American English dub, which is of similar quality.

extra features

The expected and welcome Commentary by Bey Logan is loaded to the gills with information on the Thai Chi fighting style, the cultural and historical background to the film, co-director and fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, and the careers of the lead actors, half one whom he seems to know personally. As ever it's not only a fascinating and sometimes entertaining listen, but an essential companion to the film.

The two Trailers are the UK promotional (1:47), which is sound effects and dialogue free, and the original theatrical (2:21), which has even tinnier sound than the feature. Both are anamorphic widescreen and in good visual shape.

There are two Interviews, the first with the film's love interest, Christy Chung (22:43), who talks about her role in the film and her work with such genre luminaries as Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow (who she once asked to marry her and here pleads for a positive response), as well as her admiration for Michelle Yeoh, her roles in other martial arts films, her photo book Feel, and getting back to her career after the birth of her daughter. There are also a collection of interview outtakes and cheery fooling around at the end, which is topped off with an on-camera reprise of a joke about female orgasms first heard on the commentary of Red Wolf. The second is with Darren Shahlavi (40:22), who plays the film's English bad guy, Mr. Smith. This is a welcome feature after the extensive information supplied on him by Bey Logan, who was instrumental in getting him involved in the Hong Kong movie industry and whose house Darren used to visit to dub fight scenes from his tape collection. Running for a decent length, this is a consistently interesting interview, not least because Shahlavi is clearly a genuinely nice guy and a fine storyteller, outlining how he came to work in the Hong Kong film industry and providing some background on Yuen Woo-ping's working methods, as well as some engaging on-set anecdotes, creating the impression that hard work though it may be, working on Hong Kong action films is one of the world's best jobs. The interview is interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage shot on Shahlavi's own camcorder by whichever crew member was free at the time, and is used effectively to provide illustration to his storytelling. Shahlavi also talks about the original but ultimately unused ending, which is illustrated with production stills.

Both interviews are shot on DV in anamorphic widescreen and look fine, but the sound has been recorded with the levels on automatic, resulting in a couple of moments when it drops out and slowly recovers after a particularly loud word from the interviewee.

The Christy Chung Photo Gallery consists of a series of reproductions from Christy's photo book Feel. I'd suspect Bey Logan was keen on this extra, being of the opinion (along with FHM magazine) that she is "the sexiest woman in Asia."

Behind the Scenes Montage (1:40) is comprised of footage from Darren Shahlavi's camcorder record of the warehouse climax shoot, set to music from the film. Interesting in itself, it's pretty damned short given the footage that must have been available, and in truth there's probably more included in Darren's interview.

Behind the Scenes Photo Gallery consists of 51 production stills, including those of the unused ending discussed in the Darren Shahlavi interview, all reproduced at a good size.

summary

Timing, it is said, is everything, and in this respect luck was not on Tai Chi Boxer's side. Released in Hong Kong when interest in the second wave of martial arts actioners was on the wane, it bombed at the box office and failed to launch Jacky Wu's career with the hoped-for bang. But for fans of martial arts cinema it has a lot going for it, especially in the fabulously staged, turbo-charged fight sequences. As Bey Logan rightly states, they showcase the remarkable Yueng Woo-ping at pretty much the top of his game.

Tai Chi Boxer
Tai ji quan

Hong Kong 1996
92 mins
director
Yuen Woo-ping
starring
Jacky Wu
Christy Chung
Yu Hai
Billy Chow
Darren Shahlavi

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby surround 5.1
languages
Cantonese
English
subtitles
English
Dutch
extras
Commentary by Bey Logan
Interviews with Christy Chung and Darren Shahlavi
Behind-the-scenes motage
Christy Chung photo gallery
Production stills
distributor
Hong Kong Legends
release date
Out now
review posted
3 January 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews