It’s incredible when you think of it, but Jet Li’s first Hollywood film (as a villain in Lethal Weapon IV) was a mere 10 years ago. That’s right, back in 1998, few outside the Hong Kong action film fanbase knew the amazing talents of this life long kung fu expert. Certainly his work in the Once Upon a Time in China films made a major impact, but it took DVD and the digital format to really serve those epics the way they deserved. Indeed, Li’s rise from cult to commodity, geek glory to A-list action man, is nothing short of amazing.
And with said ascent we Westerners are finally being treated to the many unknown movies in his resume. Thanks to Genius Products, The Weinstein Company, and their definitive Dragon Dynasty label, his 1993 tour de force Tai Chi Master is now available. Featuring several major players in the genre both in front of and behind the camera, we get a clear example of why Li is the superstar he is today.
As young boys among the Shaolin, Jun Bao and Tien Bo were almost inseparable - that is, when they weren’t trying to outdo each other in the martial arts arena. A mistake sees them banned from the temple, and set out into the world. Soon, Tien Bo has fallen under the corrupting influence of the local eunuch governor, while Jun Bao works with a Robin Hood like insurrection taking back the excessive taxes and shakedown protection monies manipulated out of the population. In a grab for power, Tien Bo promises to stop the rebellion.
He tricks his friends into an attempted assassination. Only Jun Bao and broken woman Sui Lin make it out alive. Vowing to end the reign of terror instigated by his childhood friend, our hero takes up the sacred teachings of Chi, and learns the invaluable fighting lessons of its skill set. Naturally, a showdown between Jun Bao and Tien Bo will prove who is indeed the master, and whose been a servant to secular whims for far too long.
Tai Chi Master is one of the greatest martial arts movies of all time. This is no exaggeration. When you combine the stellar talents of a prime Li (30 years old and ready to rock), an amazing Michelle Yeoh, a ballsy turn by Chin Siu Ho, and nonstop action amazement from a directing God Yuen Wo Ping, this is the kind of kung fu spectacle that turns the novice into a fan and the knowledgeable into something akin to rabid. The basic plot serves as a model cinematic clothesline, perfect for the filmmaker to hang his patented wire fighting stunt scenes on. Even better, each one builds in skill level and execution, leading to a series of third act showdowns which close the story in absolutely epic fashion.
Unlike other examples of the genre, which focus almost exclusively on honor and duty, tradition and the trappings of society, Tai Chi Master is more concerned about the philosophical underpinnings of the title art form. Here, Jun Bao and Tien Bo are exiled for violating the monastery’s strict codes. But before they leave, their master explains how this is a blessing in disguise. Without understanding how their skill set plays within the parameters of the real world - and in turn, how the pair will respond when temptation and teachings clash - they will never truly gain wisdom. All throughout the first third of the narrative, our neophytes are tested over and over.
Part of the joy in this majestic battle royale is in how the characters react. Chin Siu Ho has the hardest role to fulfill, since we have to watch him turn from ambitious to evil in a very short period of time. Of course, the script gives him some truly horrendous crimes to commit, yet we have to buy the personal motivation and find empathy. Ho helps us do so. Similarly, Ms. Yeoh is hardly a weak willed woman, especially within these settings. But Tai Chi Master throws her for a loop early on, when an ex-husband shows up with his new horrible harpy wife. After another classic confront, Siu Lin drowns her sorrows in massive vats of wine. It’s spellbinding to see the actress in anything other than superhero mode.
The biggest surprise, however, is Jet Li’s effervescent, almost tragicomic performance as Jun Bao. There is lots of clowning and confused physical shtick in his humor-laced routine, but the overall façade he presents is one of dismay, betrayal, and anger. He even gets to play inebriated and insane (while recuperating from an attack). While he maintains the same stature and grace throughout, his is a troubled man, tormented by a true lack of understanding. Once he gets into the montage-style Tai Chi material, complete with voiceover lessons and artful fighting illustrations, we sense the champion coming to the fore. His last battle with Tien Bo seals the deal…and the movie.
Lacking some of the insight we’ve come to expect from the DVD series, the bonus features presented are more praise-oriented than production dense. Brett Ratner and Elvis Mitchell are on hand to give Jet li, Michelle Yeoh and Yuen Wo Ping their due, while another featurette focuses on the location for the shoot. The only star we hear from is Tien Bo - Chin Siu Ho. Looking surprisingly young, he discusses his own martial arts past and what it was like working with the various icons present. Wrapping everything up is another excellent commentary from Bey Logan. Desperate to fill in the blanks located at places like Wikipedia and IMDb, he delivers a detailed, dense, discussion of both the players and the pitfalls in making this kind of action ‘opera’. It’s an intriguing listen.
With its lightening swordplay, flawless fisticuffs, slapstick style physical stunts, and well-choreographed genius, Tai Chi Master instantly takes its place among the many noted genre classics. It contains timeless performances from all involved while staying true to the recognizable approaches that keep fans flocking to this area of entertainment. Even better, this is the perfect introductory film for anyone wondering why, in today’s clime of CGI inspired bravado and outsized visuals, the basic body movements associated with the martial arts remain compelling. It’s much more than the violence. It’s the names responsible for the mayhem that are equally important. And Tai Chi Master has an amazing collection of talent behind it.