Tai Chi Boxer
(Tai ji quan) (1996)
Directed by Yam-Yin Cheung and Woo-ping Yuen

Artistic Value: * *
Entertainment Value: * * *

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In the last years of the Ch'ing dynasty, Hong Man (Jacky Wu), the son of a skilled martial artist and physician, falls in love with Rose (Christy Chung), the beautiful, Spanish educated, and socially conscious daughter of a local official. When Rose and her friends are protesting the import of opium into China and are threatened by the violent smugglers, Hong Man comes to their aid. The ensuing fight brings him into conflict with the brutal leader of the criminals (Darren Shahlavi) and with Rose's fiancé, whose brother is involved with the smugglers.

Yam-Yin Cheung and Woo-ping Yuen's Tai Chi Boxer is a generally well made, exciting, and enjoyable film. It is, however, burdened with a number of flaws.

The story of the love that develops between Hong Man and Rose is usually nicely presented and is given some depth because of the latter's ambiguous relationship with her fiancé, who emerges as more complex than either a simple villain or a heroic protagonist. Sadly, the directors are frequently inconsistent in their presentations of the movie's other narrative threads. They bring up, and quickly forget, Hong Man's efforts to cure Rose's father of his addiction to opium. They note the complicity of Rose's fiancé's brother in the villain's opium smuggling operation, but never do anything with it. They give the viewer a chance to see Hong Man's fighting skills and Rose's social consciousness by depicting their opposition to the local community's desire to sacrifice a pair of children at a local festival but make the viewer wonder, at the same time, why none of the protagonists were aware of this particular custom until that point.

In fact, other than Rose and Hong Man's love story, most of the film's narrative apparently exists only to provide the directors with excuses to include either dreadful attempts at comedy or various action sequences. The latter are, however, consistently well done. Jackie Wu displays considerable skill as a martial artist, and all the fights in which his character is involved are well choreographed and genuinely exciting.

Lastly, I should add that Jackie Wu is always likeable as the good-hearted protagonist who is far more intent on wooing Rose and having fun than he is on pursuing his studies, despite his father's repeated demands that he attend to his education. Christy Chung, although not particularly memorable, is always attractive, so that it is easy to understand why Hong Man is as smitten with her as he is shown to be. Darren Shahlavi provides the film with a snarling, overdone villain, but contributes little else to the movie. Whatever his failings, and those of the odd supporting player, the quality of the acting in Tai Chi Boxer is, however, generally better than that in most Kung Fu movies.

While hardly a great film, Tai Chi Boxer is enjoyable. Its central characters are likeable. The love that develops between Hong Man and Rose is charmingly presented, and the action scenes are exhilarating.

Review by Keith Allen

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