Note: I am writing these as a fan of the genre. I am not a movie expert or an expert in asian cinema. These are my own observations based on what I have learned by watching wuxia and kung fu movies, and by reading about them through interviews and books. But my knowledge is quite limited and I am an English speaker. So understand that my commentary comes from this perspective.
This review contains many spoilers.
Tai Chi Master (also called Twin Warriors) is a 1993 release directed by Yuen Woo-Ping (Drunken Master, Iron Monkey and True Legend) that stars Jet Li (Junbao), Chin Siu-ho (Chin Bo) and Michelle Yeoh (Siu Lin).
This is my favorite Jet Li movie from the 90s. There is something special about Hong Kong films from that period. I like a lot of the new stuff that is available, and I like a lot of the much older stuff as well, but the 90s action movies from Hong Kong have a nice blend of serious fighting, slapstick and athleticism. I think this is largely thanks to exceptional directors like Yuen Woo-Ping (who also did the action choreography for American movies like Kill Bill and the Matrix) but also because of incredibly athletic and skilled actors like Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh. This was also just a time when Hong Kong action seemed to be at its apex.
Jet Li wasn't just an actor who learned a bit of Kung Fu, he had a background in Wushu and was a member of the Beijing Wushu Team as a child. In addition to this he studied many other martial arts. This shows in his performances. Michelle Yeoh, though she didn't have the same martial arts background, had training as a ballet dancer from a very early age, which I think is equally beneficial for action movies. When you have two action stars of this caliber in a martial arts film it shines in part because there is never a single moment where you doubt their movements, where you can see this is just an actor striking a pose. And that talent is essential for making a film like Tai Chi Master work because the action choreography is so fast, witty and precise. This is the kind of movie, if you don't pay attention to every movement, you really miss out.
TAI CHI MASTER
The movie opens at Shaolin Temple, where two young students, Junbao (Jet Li) and Chin Bo (Chin Siu-ho), are introduced for the first time by their master. Junbao is the senior student, already a disciple of Shaolin, while Chin Bo is new. As soon as the master leaves, Chin Bo talks Junbao into addressing him as senior when others are not around and this begins a lifelong lopsided relationship with the mischievous Chin Bo leading the kind hearted Junbao on a path of difficulty. The two become close friends, and while Chin Bo clearly has a darker, less naive, nature than Junbao, the structure and safety of Shaolin Temple seem to keep him on a relatively stable path. Over the years their Kung Fu improves greatly and their bond strengthens.
When they are young men, Chin Bo participates in a competition to advance into another hall of the temple. He competes against Simpao, who cheats by throwing dust in Chin Bo's eyes. Blinded and enraged, Chin Bo attacks in a rage, pounding Simpao with foot and fist, nearly killing him in the process. This angers the Master overseeing the competition, who banishes Chin Bo. A brief fight breaks out, with Chin Bo striking the Master. It ends with both him and Junbao being cast from the temple. Before they leave, their Master (not the one who issued the banishment) gives them parting advice and forgives them. He has faith that Junbao's kind nature will see him through in the world beyond the temple, but he fears that Chin Bo may go astray. He hands Chin Bo the Book of Chi, saying he should read it if he ever falters.
In time they find their way to a city that is under the authority of the Eunuch governor Liu, who is effectively crushing a local rebellion. It becomes clear that the governor taxes the population unfairly and this is what gives rise to the rebels.
In the streets they meet Siu Lin (Michelle Yeoh), a wandering musician looking for her husband who left her for wealthier woman related to governor Liu. They also meet the delightful Reverend Ling (Yuen Cheung-yan) and Miss Li (Fennie Yuen), a righteous hero who steals back money from a group of thugs for an elder merchant. Jun Bao and Chin Bo help Miss Li fend off the bandits, then dive into a tavern where they once again encounter Siu Lin. In the tavern, Chin Bo "adapts" to the outside world by eating meat and dreaming of riches, while Junbao continues with rice and bean curd. Siu Lin finds her husband seated at the tavern with his new wife and tries to give him her Sanxian (a stringed instrument that clearly has sentimental value to her). The wife and Siu Lin fight over the gesture in one of the better and more humorous battles of the film.
Later Chin Bo and Junbao stay at the tavern with Siu Lin and Miss Li, Junbao content to sleep on the floor and Chin Bo wishing for a better life. It becomes clear the tavern is a front for some local rebels who Chin Bo becomes friends with.
Initially Chin Bo and Junbao try to earn a living demonstrating their Kung Fu in the streets. But when officials take their earnings, telling them they must pay several taxes in order to perform, things change. Chin Bo leaves with the official to join the governor's army, while Junbao returns to the tavern and the rebels.
The two meet again later, after Chin Bo has been in the army for a while. Both have grown out their hair and no longer look like monks. Chin Bo has changed but they are still friends. He even helps Junbao deal with a soldier that was bullying them at the tavern.
Later Chin Bo competes before Governor Liu for a promotion but is told he is too reckless (later the governor reveals this isn't the real reason he didn't promote him). Soon after, Chin Bo rushes to the tavern to tell his friends and the rebels that soldiers are on their way. Most of them manage to escape but some are caught by the Governor's men. Chin Bo offers to be their inside man and they plan an attack on the governor. He helps them sneak into Governor Liu's camp, but when they arrive at his tent they are surrounded by soldiers and Chin Bo disappears. It becomes clear he has betrayed them and most of the rebels are cut down. Junbao and Reverend Ling manage to escape but both Siu Lin and Miss Li are captured.
Chin Bo takes Miss Li to his tent and tries to ply her with luxuries. He says he did everything so they could be together, but she attacks him. Governor Liu enters the tent, boasting that eliminating his need for women is what has made him a success in life. He tells Chin Bo that Miss Li made an attempt on his life and must be dealt with. With very little hesitation, Chin Bo strikes her in the back of the neck, killing Miss Li instantly. At this point it seems there is no possibility of redemption for him.
|The rebels betrayed by Chin Bo|
Governor Liu expresses an interest in recruiting Junbao and tells Chin Bo to ask him to join him and the emperor or be killed. I don't know how if the dialogue in this scene was translated with an eye for an American audience but it feels quite reminiscent of the Empire Strikes back in this moment. To lure his friend, Chin Bo ties Siu Lin to a cross and waits with his men. When Junbao arrives to rescue her, Chin Bo offers him a place next to him in Governor Liu's army. Junbao refuses and tries to rescue Siu Lin. While Chin Bo's Kung Fu is visibly superior, Junbao and Sui Lin retreat and go into hiding with Reverend Ling. It is an interesting battle, starting out with Junbao as the rescuer, he ultimately is saved by Siu Lin when the cross collapses.
The affects of the betrayal are catastrophic for Junbao, who goes mad over the following weeks. Sui Lin and Reverend Ling desperately attempt to help him as he talks with statues and believes himself to be a duck. This transformation is played mostly for humor and ends when Junbao starts reading the Book of Chi and begins to understand the Dao. This culminates in him mastering Tai Chi, a style more suited to his nature.
Chin Bo is made a lieutenant and continues to earn praises from Governor Liu who is invited to the capital for an audience with the Emperor because his province is one of the few not destabilized by rebellion. He tells Chin Bo he wants the rebels completely rooted out in the meantime. Chin Bo starts a bloody campaign to weed them out, killing women and children in an effort to find Junbao's hiding place. When word of the slaughter reaches Junbao and Siu Li, they decide to strike.
Armed with his new powers in Tai Chi, Junbao is now prepared to face his old friend. First they attack and capture Governor Liu. Then they use him as a hostage to get into the army camp and deal with Chin Bo. Their plans begin to fall apart when Chin Bo kills the governor. But this loses the loyalty of the soldiers and they do nothing to stop Junbao from battling their general.
The two have an epic battle, with Junbao's using his Tai Chi to turn Chin Bo's aggression and power against him. At one point, Chin Bo begs for his life, vowing to mend his ways, but uses the opportunity to attack. Junbao fends him off and kicks him into the air, where he is impaled on the spear tips of the standing soldiers. The film ends with Siu Lin and Junbao parting ways and Junbao returning to the Shaolin Temple.
SLAPSTICK BUT SERIOUS SWORDPLAY
Tai Chi Master has it all: open-hand fighting, swordplay, improvised weapons, slapstick and pathos. At the start of the film, many of the fight scenes are filled with visual humor, but this diminishes over the course of movie as it grows more serious. It is the kind of film that is intended to make the audience experience a range of emotions from laughter to tears and does so effectively. The wit is all spot on, but it isn't used as an excuse to cut corners on the action. In fact the humor in Tai Chi Master is an outgrowth of the exceptional fight choreography.
|Junbao and Chin Bo in disguise|
The whole cast is brilliant but Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh stand out for their highly athletic performances. They are aided by wires and good editing, but none of this is to cover up any lack of skill. Their movements are clear for the audience to see, not concealed by the camera.
While the story is quite simple, it develops effectively and the action keeps a steady pace throughout the movie. The main focus is the relationship between Junbao and Chin Bo, but the other characters all go through similar transformations. Ultimately the message that repeats is the past makes you what you are, but shouldn't be your burden. One needs to let go in order to move forward. When Junbao achieves understanding of the Dao, this appears to be one of his key insights, and results in him letting go of his past and friendship with Chin Bo. Similarly Siu Lin lets go of the loss of her husband.
|Junbao and Siu Lin take Governor Liu hostage|
Tai Chi Master is must see for martial arts fans, and also great fodder for gaming. The situation, more than the story itself, lends itself to an adventure. Every campaign can use an evil governor and rising rebellion. Chin Bo makes a strong villain, a hero fallen from grace. While Junbao, Siu Lin and the rebels resemble a pretty typical adventuring party.