The Tai-Chi Master (1993)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-08-04
and it is Tai-Chi," says Jun Biao (Jet Li) during the first part of the climactic battle with Tian Biao (Chin Siu Ho), formerly his companion on the road, comrade in arms and best friend. Li was probably approaching his peak as a martial artist in 1993 and Yuen Wo Ping make full use of Li’s strength, flexibility and general credibility as a man who can do anything with his body. Li is all grace and power—a combination of Pele doing a bicycle kick and Baryshnikov turning into a grande jete.

Just about everyone on screen shares his physical charisma. Michelle Yeoh is as lithe and deadly as a panther. Everything about her is movement—even when she is as still as a pond the coiled energy for the next leap, thrust or kick—especially kick—is obvious.

Villains are often the most attractive characters since much of the energy and drive of a work must center around them and Tian Biao is no exception—he is all malevolent force and maniacal determination, willing to do anything to advance in the Imperial service.

The art direction is superb—the encampment of the Imperial army, with row after row of rounded white tents, the very ornate headquarters of the eunuch Liu, narrow streets of the unnamed town where much of the action takes place. Fight choreography is brilliant and wonderfully executed. Michelle Yeoh’s fight with her ex-husband’s new girl friend—a wealthy and powerful woman who is also very adept at kung fu—is terrific. A table and parts of the table as it gets smashed to pieces is the main prop in the fight—every bit of it is used to good effect.

The first part of the movie—growing up in the Shaolin Temple, learning kung fu, being thrown out and forced to hit the road—is excellent. This leads to Jun and Tian arriving at a town during a rebellion against the emperor and his tax collectors. The rest of the characters are introduced, including Fennie Yuen Kit-ying, restaurateur, kung fu expert and rebel. There are battles and betrayals and heroism and cowardice throughout this part of the movie. The last part, which includes rescuing Michelle Yeoh who is hanging from a cross (tied, not nailed) atop a huge log structure and the last wonderful battle is an exciting and effective sequence.

This leaves the thankfully shorter middle part, which Jet Li has to carry as an actor and not as a martial artist. It is not a negative criticism to say that Jet Li in 1993 was not a particularly good actor and wasn’t up to the task of depicting a proud warrior who has been driven insane by the treachery of his former comrade. He could hit his mark and say his lines but that was as far as his characterization went—and at that point in his career it was all that could be expected of him.

There were large, complex and very well orchestrated crowd scenes, including a couple that filled the screen with Imperial soldiers. Fittingly enough, “Tai-Chi Master” opens and closes with rows of exceptional tai-chi practitioners working in unison behind the new Master of the temple.

Reviewer Score: 8