[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a bi-weekly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
As I neared the end of my recent re-watch of Tai Chi Master, I came to the realization that I probably should have picked a different film to cap off this short celebration of Michelle Yeoh. Following on from Wing Chun a few weeks back, I realized Yuen Woo-ping’s earlier (by four months) film wasn’t actually much about her character. Yeoh still plays a prominent role and is instrumental in the finale, but the film follows the story of Junbao (Jet Li) and Tian-Biao (Chin Siu Ho) from their childhood in Shaolin Temple until a dramatic showdown later in life. An incident arises when Junbao sides with villagers against an oppressive military that Tian-Biao joins, resulting in the two battling to the death. It’s like The Fox and the Hound, but with more action sequences and no idiotic comedic foils.
Even with a lack of focus on Yeoh, it’s not very long into this film that she makes an appearance. Roughly 15-ish minutes in, Junbao and Tian-Biao come across her in a village after they’ve been banished from Shaolin for roughing up the place. It’s actually quite spectacular how action-packed the opening moments are. Nary a second is wasted as we get exposition to establish the main character’s motivations, some light training sequences, a bit of comedy, and then an explosive wire-fu sequence to cap off the first act. Woo-ping was absolutely on a roll in the 90s with this, Wing Chun, and Iron Monkey all releasing months apart.
Anyway, Yeoh’s role is initially uncertain in the grander scheme of things from her introduction. Junbao gets knocked into Siu-lin’s (Yeoh) sanxian during a misunderstanding with some food and she asks him about her missing husband. Later on, during a scene at a restaurant, Siu-lin winds up brawling with the governor’s sister as she has stolen the mysterious husband. A lot of the framing and staging would be borrowed in Wing Chun as Yeoh stands on a half-busted table and even uses the legs as stilts to whoop some ass. It’s all kinetic and shot with the same undercranking method I mentioned last time. Woo-ping loved this in the 90s, but he actually utilized it well instead of throwing it in to disguise the performers’ lack of skill.
The battle ends with Siu-lin’s husband smashing a chair over her head and Junbao jumping in to resolve the conflict. The local guards have been called in and Junbao needs to get everyone to safety, so he exits out the back and the issue is put on hold. Later that night, Junbao is eating a meal with his new friends while Siu-lin sits in the corner and drinks her troubles away. In a short featurette on the DVD I own, it’s mentioned that this moment is a tribute to Drunken Master with Yeoh even adopting some of the same stances that Jackie Chan did a few decades prior.
Before any of this happened, Junbao and Tian-Biao were having a rough time acclimating to civilian life and attempted to peddle their martial arts skills for money on the streets. This drew the ire of the local militia and brought the duo in contact with Miss Li (Fennie Yuen). Tian-Biao takes an immediate liking to her and this starts his downfall. He doesn’t believe he is good enough to garner her attention and decides he needs to join the military to amass some power. Eventually, the duo goes their separate ways as Junbao doesn’t want to sell his soul simply to survive.
It’s an emotional way to build tension in the plot, but the story often gets sidetracked with intense Kung Fu brawls and wacky comedy. I thought Wing Chun was maybe a bit too loaded with comedy, but Tai Chi Master is on another level. A lot of the humor comes from idiosyncratic moments, like during Iron Head training where Junbao and Tian-Biao are smashing bricks on their head nonchalantly. The comedy even crops up in the action, such as when Junbao pogos from person to person on his head. Everything is very inventive, keeping you guessing what wacky scenario is going to crop up next.
What really struck me this time was how Tai Chi Master almost works like a metaphor for Jet Li’s career at this point. Having started out a little more than a decade earlier with Shaolin Temple, Li had revisited that series twice before to create something of an unofficial trilogy. From there, he went on to portray Chinese folk heroes Wong Fei-hung and Fong Sai-yuk in Once Upon a Time in China and Fong Sai-yuk, respectively. Tai Chi Master can be read as Li exclaiming he was done with being the pristine, well-behaved bald monk on a quest to uphold Buddhist traditions. Just the next year, he would star in a Bond-Esque film titled The Bodyguard from Beijing and Fist of Legend, a remake of Bruce Lee’s legendary Fist of Fury.
I might be reading a bit much into things, but this film did mark a turn for Li and even Yeoh’s careers. Yeoh was on the upswing after a brief absence from acting due to a marriage she felt he had to perform. She would divorce that husband and make a glorious return to Hong Kong actio
n with Police Story 3: Supercop, the film I probably should be writing about. Anyway, the two teaming up here makes for a very natural pairing as each doesn’t need to hold back in any scenes together. Li was a Wushu champion and Yeoh already proved she could hang with the big boys, so the two complement each other when battling together.
The brief fight when Siu-lin is plastered even shows that under the right conditions, her character would be equal to Junbao. It’s a declaration from Woo-ping that he knows both stars are forces to be reckoned with and that neither one could outshine the other. As such, they become allies and fight against crime while attached to wires and swinging weapons with reckless abandon.
Where Tai Chi Master kind of falters is at the beginning of the third act. Tian-Biao betrays his old friends and winds up killing everyone except for Junbao and Siu-lin. Junbao bravely rescues her, but then goes mad with grief over the death of his allies. This is where Siu-lin needs to step up and protect him, even giving a short speech that shares that sentiment in a more poetic manner. All of that is fine, but the film slows down for 20-minutes as Junbao seemingly discovers tai-chi and invents it in a montage mixed with awkward comedy and character moments that don’t quite land.
The pacing of Tai Chi Master is mostly superb, but this bit towards the end nearly sinks the film. I was ready to call this Woo-ping’s best film of the decade, but underbaked character arcs (Tian-Biao’s turn to evil escalates far too quickly) and awkward comedy do more harm than good. Still, when the action picks up for the finale, everything is right in the world. Siu-lin mostly holds the governor hostage while walking into an army of guards like a boss, but Junbao and Tian-Biao’s showdown takes so many twists and turns that it never bores.
When the credits roll, it becomes clear that Tai Chi Master is maybe not what one would consider as a starring vehicle for Michelle Yeoh. She’s excellent in the picture and has a ton of solid action moments, but her character is not the focus of the story. That doesn’t make the movie bad or even really detract much from things, but I wouldn’t point someone to this if they were looking for more of Yeoh’s badassery. This is a film you recommend months later once your friend has churned through some of Yeoh’s more famous roles.
Even with a lack of Yeoh, Tai Chi Master has a ton of creative fights that feel kinetic and fantastical in equal measure. If you weren’t a fan of Jet Li before, you probably will be once you witness him bouncing on his head around a battlefield. A thin plot aside, Tai-Chi Master is another solid addition in Woo-ping’s filmography.
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