'Tai Chi Zero': Kung fu action, colored by comic books

Yuan Xiaochao (left) as Lu Chan battles foes in Chen Village, where he has gone in search of a renowned tai chi master. "Tai Chi Zero" is the first film in a planned trilogy.

Tai Chi Zero, Stephen Fung's frenetic, wry, self-referential kung fu film set in 19th-century China, opens in the middle of a battle.

Set up as a grand John Woo-style epic fight, it pits imperial forces against a rebel army called Divine Truth Cult. Thousands upon thousands of (digitally created) extras in battle gear bear down on one another on the hot sands.

Things look dire for the cult until its general activates his secret weapon, the one man capable of mopping up the enemy and wrapping up the battle in time for dinner.

That'd be "the Freak," a young soldier who is blessed, or cursed, with a fleshy horn on his forehead. Smack the little nub and the Freak, or Yang Lu Chan, as his mother knew him, transforms into a lethal, Wushu-practicing Tasmanian devil.

Loosely based on the story of a real-life kung fu hero, Yang Lu-chan, Tai Chi Zero is an amusing, if not altogether successful, collage of styles, genres, and influences. It's a live-action kung fu manga with on-screen writing, comic-book style.

Lu Chan, who is played by Wushu champion Jayden Yuan (as the film has him - he also is known as Yuan Xiaochao), is the classic literary naïf you'll run across in any Jonathan Swift or Voltaire story. A simple soul orphaned at a young age, he wants to be good at one thing in his life, martial arts.

Tai Chi Zero shifts into a martial-arts quest film when Lu Chan leaves the cult and goes in search of Master Chen (Tony Leung Ka Fai), a renowned tai chi teacher whose family lives in an isolated village in the mountains.

Created as the ultimate movie set, Chen Village is filled with cool buildings, quirky gadgets, oddball machines, and even stranger characters.

Lu Chan's quest seems over when he is told that only people born in the village can learn the master's brand of tai chi. But he sticks around to defend his new friends when the Western-educated former villager Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) turns up with plans to raze the city to make way for a railroad.

The film shifts once again, this time into a steampunk animé-style fantasy when Fang attacks the village with a ginormous steam-powered steel-tank-cum-bulldozer.

Tai Chi Zero, the first film in a planned trilogy, will leave hard-core fight enthusiasts wanting. But it's a droll, pleasant diversion all the same.

Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

Tai Chi Zero

Directed by Stephen Fung. With Paul Philip Clark, Angelababy, Eddie Peng, David Trook, Daniel Wu, Yuan Xiaochao, Pierre Bourdaud, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Marc Goodman, Qi Shu. Distributed by Variance Films/Well Go USA.

Running time: 1 hours, 34 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for violence and martial arts action throughout).