(Tai Ji Zhang San Feng)
Director – Woo-ping Yuen, Screenplay – Kwong Kim Yip, Photography – Tom Lau, Music – Wai Lap Wu. Production Company – Eastern Productions.
Jet Li (Zhang Junbao), Chin Siu-hou (Dong Tianbao), Michelle Yeoh (Qiuxue)
Placed in a Shaolin temple as young boys, Junbao and Tianbao grow up, secretly imitating the monks in their kung fu training until they become fighters of dazzling prowess. Thrown out of the temple wrongfully accused of fighting unfairly, they try to make their way in the world and fall in with a group of rebels. Tianbao enlists in the imperial army where he rapidly rises to become a commander with his martial arts skills but also becomes known for his incredible cruelty. He ruthlessly betrays the rebels, which nearly breaks Junbao’s spirit. However, Junbao recovers and determines to become a master of the tranquil art of Tai Chi, the only way he will defeat Tinbao.
As one has said repeatedly, Hong Kong makes action films like no other country in the world does. Eventually they became noticed in the American mainstream and the latter half of the 1990s saw Hollywood starting to employ Hong Kong directors like Ringo Lam, Chin Siu-Tung, Tsui Hark and most famously John Woo, as well as actors like Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh. Of course, then came the amazing successes of The Matrix (1999), which employed this film’s director Woo-ping Yuen to choreograph the martial arts sequences, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Nevertheless, the best still continue to be the Hong Kong originals even while being made on a tenth or less of the budget of the US equivalents.
The Tai Chi Master is not an overtly fantastic film – that is to say by dint of any of its subject matter – but must surely be classified as such for its wholly fantastique martial arts sequences. Hong Kong martial arts films regularly feature people flying by bouncing off trees and walls and such physically impossible acrobatics as having combatants twirling around one another and exchanging sword blows in mid-air.
There are some breathtaking martial set-pieces in the film – four people versus an entire army of swordsmen; two unarmed men versus an entire monastery of monks armed with staves; two opponents exchanging sword blows around the sides of a wooden tower; two women fighting, one balanced atop a table as the legs are being chopped out from under it. The action is leavened by a delightfully light slapstick hand and all in all The Tai Chi Master is an unpretentious joy.
Yuen Wo-Ping is a legendary Hong Kong fight coordinator who did work on films such as Once Upon a Time in China (1991) and sequels, The Twin Dragons (1992), Fist of Legend (1994), Black Mask (1996), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Kung Fu Hustle (2004) and Fearless (2006), as well as Western films such as The Matrix and Kill Bill films. Yuen has directed a number of films on his own with the likes of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1976), Legend of a Fighter (1982), The Miracle Fighters (1982), Dragons vs Vampires (1986), Iron Monkey (1993), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016), The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (2017) and in particular the hit of Drunken Master (1978), which made Jackie Chan’s reputation.