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It’s quite often that you hear about prolific director and star combinations. Duos like Scorsese/De Niro, John Woo/Chow Yun-Fat, and Hitchcock/Jimmy Stewart always seemed to bring out the best in both participants when it came to film making, often resulting in the classics that each artist or performer were or are still known for. Less likely is when you hear about the combination of a star and his choreographer, but this is the relationship that presents itself when talking about the careers of Jet Li and Martial Arts Choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping. While Li has worked with many different choreographers and directors over the course of his career, it is this relationship with Woo-Ping that helped to define the star’s cinematic legacy by allowing him to flourish in films that stood out amongst his other Martial Arts works, including Fist of Legend, Unleashed, and others, including Dragon Dynasty’s newest DVD release, The Tai Chi Master.
The biggest difference between The Tai Chi Master and the rest of the films these two worked on together was that on this particular occasion Master Woo-Ping was actually sitting in the director’s chair as well. While his Kung fu choreography skills are the primary reason for his popularity stateside, due to his work in films such as The Matrix and Kill Bill, the fight-master is also an accomplished director in Hong Kong, helming over 25 movies, including star making pictures for Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, and right in line with his Chop Socky classics like Drunken Master and Magnificent Butcher, The Tai Chi Master is infused with Yuen Woo-Ping’s directorial signatures; thunderous action and a high penchant for broad humor.
Both end up making this one of Jet Li’s most engaging efforts, one that lets him show off a bit of his acting skills as well as how fleeted-footed the actor is. Li stars in the picture as Junbao, a naïve and good hearted Shaolin Monk, thrown out of the Temple when he tries to defend his friend Chin Bo (Chin Siu Ho) after a violent altercation during a martial arts tournament. Living on the streets, the duo get by as street performers, basically letting people try and beat them up for money, but even though they attempt to stay out of trouble, they end up falling in with a rebel sect trying to take down the local tyrannical government.
During the film’s meatier last half, the movie explores heavier themes, especially the dichotomy between Junbao’s benevolence and Chin Bo’s worldly greed. There are many deceptions and confrontations, with Woo-Ping staging gorgeously violent battles, including a Peckinpah-worthy skirmish in the picture’s center which features seemingly hundreds blood-soaked warriors fighting hand to hand. The sheer audacity of the battle is enough to recommend the film, but thankfully Woo-Ping has more tricks up his sleeve.
The director knows when to pull back and make this film more personal, letting the personal conflict between Junbao and Chin Bo take center stage in amazing swashbuckling sequences. Woo-Ping simply has no equal when it comes to staging fights, and it helps that he’s given some of the best screen performers of the last two decades to work with, including Michelle Yeoh being able to stand side by side the film’s two male leads onscreen. All do fabulous, awe-inspiring work at times, and also hold their own dramatically, which is what makes this film as special as it is.
That’s not to say Action Junkies won’t get their fill here. Doubting fans will most definitely be silenced during the movie’s most ingenious action sequence, a battle-royale featuring about 40 pole-wielding monks standing on each others shoulders doing their best to take down the disgraced Junbao and Chin Bo. The scene is ingenious in its construction, and shows you exactly what you’re in for during the rest of the picture as far as gravity defying heroics go. If you’re invested after this scene, the rest of the movie should be a breeze
Old school Chop Socky told with modern choreography, The Tai Chi Master is a must own DVD for fans of either Jet Li or Yuen Woo-Ping, featuring some of their best work on screen, whether together or otherwise. Woo-Ping brings a startling amount of humor to this piece, and Jet Li is with him step for step throughout, even nimbly getting through the film’s more dramatic segments. In addition, fans of Michelle Yeoh will find some of her best work outside of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as she seems to steal scene after scene from her male counterparts. This one’s not perfect, but the wild entertainment value found in The Tai Chi Master is enough to satisfy the most hardened of Hong Kong cinema fans.
This is probably the best print of this film you’ll find on DVD, but to be honest, this is a 90’s Hong Kong movie, so the picture quality isn’t going to be the best. Still, as I said this is the best print you’ll get, and this is also the first version in this country to have the original language track and subtitles.
Feature Length Commentary by Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan – This is another terrific commentary by Logan, who again has no end of tidbits and trivia about this and apparently every other production. Want to know about how hard wirework is? Check! Want to know if Michelle Yeoh is an experienced drinker? Check. Heck, the most surprising thing about the whole commentary is when Logan actually doesn’t know a certain actress’ name, but apparently neither did any of the film’s producers either.
Nemesis: An Exclusive Interview With Star Chin Siu Ho – Nemesis ends up being a pretty lengthy interview with Chin Siu Ho going over his experience in the Martial Arts world and how that lead to his acting career and then finally discussing his experiences on this film. With terrific performances in this film and Fist of Legend you would have thought that the actor would have had a more illustrious career, but he can be proud of the solid work he did on screen, especially being able to go toe to toe with Jet Li.
The Birthplace of Tai Chi: On Location In Chen Village – This is a pretty neat Featurette looking at the history of Chen villain and how it ended up birthing the Martial Art of Tai Chi. The Featurette features interviews with local Tai Chi masters who help tell the story of the village.
Meditations On The Master: Director Brett Ratner And Critic Elvis Mitchell On Director Yuen Woo-ping – If you like Brett Ratner and want to hear him gush on Woo-Ping then this Featurette is for you. Actually, his observations and Elvis Mitchell’s are both pretty interesting here, and seem to go much farther than just fanboy praise.
Twin Warriors: Critic Elvis Mitchell And Director Brett Ratner On Stars Jet Li And Michelle Yeoh – Mitchell again is the one to listen to here, giving terrific dissertations on the careers of both Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh. I especially like his observation that while Western cinema has had our own versions of Hong Kong stars before (Jackie Chan Vs. Buster Keaton), we’ve never really had a star like Li, and I completely agree with him.
Original Home Video Trailer
The Tai Chi Master is another magnificent entry in the Dragon Dynasty catalogue, and hopefully this can continue in the near future and beyond. Jet Li fans should flock to this release, as it represents the first time in the States you can watch this movie in its original language. Also, the disc itself has a nice bevy of extras, and Bey Logan’s commentaries are always welcome.
Dragon Dynasty presents The Tai Chi Master. Directed by Yuen Woo-Ping. Starring Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, and Chin Siu Ho. Written by Kwong Kim Yip. Running time: 96 minutes. Rated R. Released on DVD: July 29, 2008. Available at Amazon.com.