cast: Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Chin Siu Ho, and Fennie Yuen
director: Yuen Woo-ping
91 minutes (15) 1993
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Showbox DVD Region 2 retail
review by Max Cairnduff
This is a classic piece of Hong Kong cinema. It’s directed by Yuen Woo-ping, who is famous for the tremendous Drunken Master (among many other very well known Hong Kong films), and for his work on the fight choreography of movies such as The Matrix, Kill Bill, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Its cast includes Hong Kong legends Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh. In a way I could stop this review now, with that director and that cast this is pretty much a must-see for fans of the genre.
That said, it’s worth spending a little time saying what the film’s about and what makes it work. Not everyone is a fan of the genre, and even those who are might want to know what sort of Hong Kong film this is.
Tai-Chi Master, previously released as Twin Warriors (aka: Tai ji: Zhang San Feng), is the story of two friends who become deadly rivals, Junbao (Jet Li) and Tienbao (Chin Siu Ho). We first meet them as students (played by child actors) at the Shaolin monastery. The two are inseparable even though Junbao is a kind and gentle boy while Tienbao is more aggressive and ambitious. They get into a series of comic scrapes, fight with other students and have mock duels. Generally, they break the rules of the monastery and sort of get away with it. Although at this point the tone is mostly comic there is still some great choreography (a play fight with brooms is nicely done) and the friendship between the two child actors is convincing.
Years pass and the boys grow up. Being Shaolin monks, the boys have learnt kung fu, but only four of the student monks will be allowed to enter the advanced training wing of the monastery. Junbao and Tienbao both want to be in that group, and to achieve that they have to fight the other students to show whose kung fu is strongest. Things go wrong though when Tienbao’s opponent cheats and Tienbao overreacts. The result is a spectacular fight scene, and the boys’ both being expelled from the monastery.
All of that takes us to the real meat of the film. The pair soon learn that there’s not much need for monks in the outside world. The people have their own problems and little time for charity. Worst of all, the town Junbao and Tienbao find themselves in is part of the territory of an evil eunuch governor who is brutally taxing the populace and killing everyone who objects or just can’t pay.
The pair do manage to make some friends. There’s Miss Li (Fennie Yuen), a pretty young woman rescued by the two whom Tienbao clearly has a soft spot for. Siu Lin (Michelle Yeoh) is a wandering musician looking for her husband who finds that he is now married to the evil governor’s niece. There’s also a number of comic relief characters in the form of the owners and staff of a local restaurant (the local restaurant I should say, there’s only one in town).
Problems arise for the two friends when they realise that their training makes them the best fighters in the area. Tienbao joins the governor’s men looking to gain money and power. Junbao sides with a group of rebels fighting against the unfair regime. The question is; can their friendship survive their taking different sides?
With Yuen Woo-ping it’s a given that the fight choreography and wirework will be superb, and he doesn’t disappoint here. There’s an inventiveness to the fight scenes which is a pleasure to watch. The use of scenery shows real cleverness and the quality of the performers is breathtaking. It doesn’t always quite make sense – pretty much everyone knows kung-fu it turns out (even the governor’s niece) – but when the kung fu’s as good as this that’s quibbling.
Chin Siu Ho makes a great villain, Fennie Yuen is a convincing romantic lead and Jet Li is on top form. The supporting cast are also very good, which is no surprise as many of them are easily recognisable character actors. The only real disappointment is with Michelle Yeoh. She plays her part well and is extraordinarily fluid in her fight scenes, but she’s underused. The disappointment isn’t with what she does; it’s that she could easily have been asked to do a lot more. The difficulty is that really this is the story of Junbao and Tienbao, and that just doesn’t leave too much room for Siu Lin.
Ultimately, Tai-Chi Master is exactly the kind of film that won fans for Hong Kong cinema around the world. It’s not the best film Yuen made, and it’s not in the absolute top league of Hong Kong cinema, but it is very good. It’s fast moving, funny, filled with marvellous action sequences and, while the special effects are a bit dated and the mood a bit melodramatic, generally it’s very enjoyable. This is a top director working with a top cast, and it shows.
Tai-Chi Master also comes with a good selection of DVD extras. These are an interview with Chin Siu Ho; a piece on the location, a discussion between another director and a critic about Yuen, another discussion of Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh and the original trailer. There is also an audio commentary by film critic Bey Logan.