The Tai Chi Master by Yuen Woo-Ping (Review)

After stuff like The One’ and Kiss of the Dragon,’ it was nice to see something as outrageous as The Tai Chi Master.’
The Tai Chi Master, Yuen Woo-Ping

Personally, I think Dimension should be pretty ashamed of the way they’ve treated Jet Li’s films since they’ve started releasing them domestically. First off, they’ve gone in and edited scenes and dialog, and adding the horrible dubbing that people have unfortunately equated with martial arts movies. And now they’re just getting sloppy; imagine my surprise when looking at the packaging for The Enforcer (the American version of My Father is a Hero) and seeing images from Fist of Legend. For a fan, that’s like a slap in the face, or at the very least, plain rude. If you’re putting out someone’s films, at least try to be accurate, just out of common courtesy.

That’s why I’m all about getting the original Hong Kong releases of these films (regardless of price). I rented Twin Warriors (the American version of The Tai Chi Master), and while the video and sound quality may have been superior, watching the HK version just feels so much more real.

The Tai Chi Master follows the lives of two young men, Jinbao (the always cool Jet Li) and Tienbao. Growing up together in the Shaolin Temple, the two become close friends and skilled martial artists. Though friends, the two are quite different. Jinbao is good-natured and content with his life, whereas Tienbao is more ambitious and competitive. This gets him in trouble at a martial arts competition when he goes overboard after his opponent resorts to dirty tricks. His resulting behavior gets both friends thrown out. Forced to live in the outside world, the cracks in their friendship begin to grow.

Determined to make a name for himself, Tienbao enlists in the army of Master Liu, a powerful eunuch. Meanwhile, Jinbao falls in with a group of rebels (featuring an understated Michelle Yeoh) seeking to overthrow Liu’s regime. Tienbao grows more and more ambitious, ultimately betraying Jinbao and his friends to gain a promotion. The shock of his best friend’s betrayal drives Jinbao mad. While in the care of two of his former comrades, Jinbao slowly comes out of his madness. Studying nature, as well as some ancient writings from his old master, Jinbao develops a new way of fighting called “Tai Chi.”

Tai Chi focuses on using your opponent’s strengths against him, on being adaptable and flexible like water, or the wind. On the surface, it isn’t an offensive fighting style. However, when used in combat, its techniques are quite effective. But while Jinbao has begun mastering his new style, Tienbao has grown more and more brutal, rising through the ranks of the army and becoming a feared general.

It had been awhile since I’d seen one of Jet Li’s pre-Hollywood films. After stuff like The One and Kiss of the Dragon (which I did enjoy, I must admit), it was nice to see something as outrageous as The Tai Chi Master. Comparable to The New Legend of Shaolin, The Tai Chi Master has some incredibly outrageous fights, the kind of stuff that you only see in the films of Yuen Woo-Ping. Watching this, I can’t wait to see what he has in store for the upcoming Matrix sequels and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

There’s the fight between Jinbao and Tienbao and a group of pole-wielding Shaolin students, complete with greasy floors and human surfboards, as well as Yeoh’s tabletop fight in the restaurant with her ex-husband’s new mistress. But the two centerpieces take place between the ex-friends. The first takes place when Jinbao comes to rescue Yeoh from Tienbao, in a windswept courtyard and culminating on what could best be described as a huge Jenga pile. The second is the final battle between the two, where Jinbao uses his newfound technique, ultimately turning Tienbao’s own cruelty against him. It just keeps getting crazier and crazier, with Tienbao literally throwing his troops at Jinbao.

Comparing this version with the Dimension version, I’m amazed at how lighthearted the Dimension’s seemed. The Tai Chi Master is a pretty dark film, with betrayal, tragedy, and madness (again, closer in mood to The New Legend of Shaolin). However, the Dimension version just played Jinbao’s madness for yucks (or maybe it was just their dubbing, which I can never seem to take seriously).

This is the way to see all of Jet Li’s movies, or any martial arts movies for that matter. Don’t bother with Dimension’s releases, even if they do look and sound better; the heart just isn’t there. Track down the original releases, even if they cost a little more or you have to wait a little longer to get them from importers. If Dimension wants my money, they’ll need to try a little harder. Films as great as The Tai Chi Master deserve more.

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