Stars: Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Siu-hou Chin, Shun Lau, Fennie Yuen | Written by Kwong Kim Yip | Directed by Yuen Woo Ping
Two orphans are raised in the legendary Shaolin Temple, and grow to become the greatest fighters of their generation. As a barbaric regime tightens its grip on the empire, each will choose a different path. One, played by Jet Li, will fight for the freedom of his people; the other, played by Chin Siu-ho (Fist of Legend), will exercise ruthless ambition on his barbaric rise to power. When a fearless female freedom-fighter (Yeoh) is captured and condemned to death, the two men will meet on the battlefield for one last life-or-death confrontation.
Tai Chi Master is the full uncut version of the film Tai ji: Zhang San Feng, and as such it’s a thousand times better than the cut and dubbed version that was previously released on DVD and seen on TV as Twin Warriors. The film is a period piece that, whilst it’s set in the past, also feels fresh and new – maybe it’s because the film features some of the best martial arts ever committed to celluloid courtesy of Jet Li and director Yuen Woo Ping (who later went on to be stunt coordinator/director on Hollywood blockbusters such as The Matrix), or maybe it’s just that – unlike a lot of today’s period martial arts dramas – it doesn’t waste time on extraneous plot, presenting the plot in the most streamlined way possible without skimping on the story one iota – in fact having seen the cut and dubbed version previously I was amazed at the subtleties in the script which drove the story forward without slowing down the pace (ala Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
The film, which comes from the iconic studios of Golden Harvest, has it all – drama, tension, comedy, action – it’s all there in a film that captures you right from the beginning and never lets go. It’s one of those films that is so engrossing you don’t realise its over till the credits roll – I didn’t find myself clock watching here, as I do with many a period film. The stand out performance in Tai Chi Master is that of, obviously, martial arts superstar Jet Li. His performance runs the gamut – from arse-kicking hero, to despondent friend, to clown-like fool, all the while showing just what makes him such a star – it’s just a shame Hollywood could never capture Li’s acting in the same way. Chin Siu-ho as Li’s ‘brother’ holds his own against such a barn-storming performance, matching Li kick for kick during the fight sequences, all the while giving a brilliant performance of a man corrupted by power.The two really do represent the ideals of Taosism, which is what the film is truely about. Michelle Yeoh (billed here as Michelle Khan) meanwhile has a smaller role than the two male leads, but even then she manages to bring her certain jeux nes sais qouis to proceedings.
Forget you Crouching Tigers, or your Flying Daggers, Tai Chi Master is THE true martial arts epic, offering superb fight sequences coupled with brilliant storytelling in a way that only Hong Kong knows how…