Tai Chi Master – Characters and Actors

According to my notes, the Chinese title for this film is Tai Ji Zhang San Feng. How does this literally translate? I am assuming that Tai Ji refers to the martial art that I know as Tai Chi. I know that Zhang San Feng is the name of the character who, according to myth, invented Tai Chi. I am pretty sure that Zhang San Feng means something like 3 times crazy. The title by which this film is most popularly known in the west is Tai Chi Master. But apparently this film was also released under the name of Twin Warriors in the US. Why am I getting my knickers in a twist over the title of this film? Lots of chopsockies have more than one title and I never care about that. But with this film I often think that maybe Twin Warriors was, in some ways, just as good a title for the film as Tai Chi Master*. Not that the latter is a bad title at all – the narrative of this movie leads to the moment when the precepts upon which Tai Chi is based are discovered and mastered by the film’s hero. But a large part of that same narrative is actually the story of not one, but two, martial artists. These two martial artists are shown as growing up together and their parallel destinies are the 2 main story arcs around which the narrative of the film is constructed. Hence this movie really could be seen as being about not just one hero (played by Jet Li) but twin warriors.

“The condition of being a legend is a certain ghostliness, as fame is no more than the sum of misunderstandings gathered around a great name.” (Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and Politics of Disappearance. P. 46)

I genuinely admire Jet Li as a performer. But I have more interest in Jet Li the artist than in Jet Li the star or the celebrity. Tai Chi Master could be seen as a Jet Li vehicle. His is by far and away the most famous name among the cast**. But to see the movie in this way really pertains only to Jet Li the celebrity. One of the misunderstandings that attach itself to a celebrity’s great name is that the celebrity stands alone as the element that makes a film worth watching, worth the outlay of a cinema ticket or the price of a DVD. But this is not the case. Performing arts (whether they be opera, ballet, theatre, or movies) are collaborative forms, and simply would not exist without the efforts of a team of artists and technicians. Even so called solo shows could be said to be collaborative efforts as most solo performers still depend on backstage technical and artistic support to make their shows happen.

Jet Li is simply wonderful in Tai Chi Master and, as a rabid Jet Li fan, I rejoice in that. But one of the reasons why this is one of my favourite films is because the whole cast is wonderful. Indeed, one of the reasons why Li looks so good is because he has other great actors and martial artists to play off (and this is the case with many of Li’s other Hong Kong films as well). If you want a performer to look good (either kinetically or dramatically) then you have to have another good performer feeding him or her the right sort of material that will give the ‘star’ a platform on which to strut his stuff. Great art cannot be achieved in isolation or created in a vacuum, regardless of how much of a solo effort it looks. Tai Chi Master doesn’t even look like a solo effort. It boasts a terrific ensemble cast headed by the twin warriors of Jet Li, playing Jun Bao, and Chin Siu Ho, playing Tian Bao.

This ensemble cast includes the luminous Michelle Yeoh playing the part of Qiu Xue. God, the camera loves this woman. She does not just look beautiful, but manages to create the impression of strength of character, intelligence, and guts as well. She has a tragedienne’s face, and every time I see her I am reminded that she originally aspired to be a ballet dancer. She must have had great promise in this field as she moved from her native Malaysia to study at the Royal Ballet School in the UK (one of the world’s elite ballet academies). She has the kind of face that would have made her a fantastic lead in tragic ballets like Giselle or Swan Lake but in Tai Chi Master she shows a flair for comedy as well as sensitive acting. Her skills as a dancer found a home in kung fu movies, and her clean lines, grace and flexibility (and her reputed fearlessness when it comes to performing stunts) are shown off in good measure in the fight scenes. In an early fight scene she takes on the sister of the evil eunuch. I can’t find the name of the woman who plays this part, but she does a good job with it and certainly is no slouch in the martial arts department. The fight between the two women uses quirky, inventive choreography. A table gets demolished and Yeoh somehow ends up wearing 2 of its legs as stilts – this adds a fun touch of circus to this fight. The effect is slightly bizarre but Yeoh carries it off with aplomb. Apart from participating in the ensemble cast’s all-in during the scene when the rebels attack the military camp to assassinate the eunuch Liu, Yeoh’s other big fight scene is the second last of the film. In this she gets to take on the evil Liu in a fast moving sword fight that features lots of wire fu and elaborate action.

Another noteworthy member of the cast is Yuen Cheung Yan, brother of the film’s director Yuen Wu Ping. He plays the cranky Taoist priest Reverend Lin. When I first saw Tai Chi Master, Yuen’s performance was the one I didn’t like. His character jarred on me, and seemed to be at odds with the atmosphere created by the other characters. Having seen a few more kung fu movies I am now more reconciled to this character. I now realize that what I was watching was not a poorly judged piece of hammed up acting, but someone operating within the stylistic confines of playing a certain type of stock character. When I saw Tai Chi Master for the first time it was very early on in my career of watching chopsockies. I didn’t have my eye in, and I wasn’t aware of certain conventions. After viewing a few more movies I became aware of the kung fu movie stock character of strange and eccentric Taoist priests living on the margins of society. So I came to understand that I was watching Yuen deliberately pitch this character’s impact to be one of oddity and quirkiness, rather than an actor who had botched his delivery. I have also seen Yuen in parts in other films. He plays the sifu who fights Iron Robe Yim in front of the bonfire in Once Upon A Time In China, as well as the police inspector in Fist of Legend. It took me a while to figure out that this was the same actor, such was Yuen’s skill in inhabiting these different characters so definitively. So when I rewatch Tai Chi Master, I now bring confidence in Yuen’s ability as an actor to my viewing of Reverend Lin. I cannot say that this character is still my favourite in the film – there is still a cultural barrier in the way of me fully enjoying the particular humour that this character is meant to contribute. But the Taoist Priest no longer jars on me to the same extent as he once did. Michelle Yeoh as Qiu Xue and Reverend Lin share some important scenes when they nurse Jun Bao through his madness, and I am now finding these scenes more enjoyable thanks to my better understanding as to what Yuen’s interpretation of this type of character is meant to achieve.

And speaking of chopsockie stock characters, this movie boasts another in the form of the evil eunuch, Governor Liu, played by Sun Jian Kui. Evil eunuchs always seem to be responsible for particularly sadistic violence in the kung fu movies they appear in, but they are so wonderfully odd and, I have to admit, to a westerner like me, exotic that they add a certain creepy allure to the movies they crop up in. The wiry Sun also had parts in Jet Li’s first 3 Shaolin Temple films and his wu shu skills get an outing in Tai Chi Master in the terrific duel with Michelle Yeoh towards the end of the film. Another Shaolin Temple film alumnus is the doughty but dynamic wu shu performer Yu Hai, who pops up in the first few scenes as a monk. Shun Lau distinguishes his role as the sifu of Jun Bao and Tian Bao with gentle authority. Fennie Yuen makes for a lively Miss Li, and the other small parts are all well done. So rather than thinking that Jet Li carries this movie as the star, I think he acquits himself well as an artist who happens to be playing one of the leading roles in a film with a strong ensemble cast.

But what of the other twin warrior, Tian Bao, played by Chin Siu Ho? This role, and its relationship to Jet Li’s character, is central to the film, and Chin plays the part perfectly. Given the importance of their characters, Tian Bao and Jun Bao get a little blog all to themselves. I will post that next.

*Please note that I am referring to the title only. I haven’t seen the DVD release entitled Twin Warriors but apparently it is a terrible version of the original film as the yanks saw fit to edit it in a weird fashion and then concoct the English dub soundtrack from hell: http://www.amazon.com/Tai-Chi-Master-Jet-Li/product-reviews/B0016MJ6JC/ref=cm_cr_pr_link_next_5?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&pageNumber=5&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending

**”Calling this a classic Jet Li film would not be an exaggeration.” From review on Love HKf.com – http://www.lovehkfilm.com/reviews/tai_chi_master.htm

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This entry was posted in jet li, kung fu movies, martial arts movies, performance, Tai Chi Master, Uncategorized, Yuen Wu Ping and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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