Billed as steampunk kung fu, Tai Chi Zero looks to shake up the standard martial arts flick by spicing up some of the visual style in a genre mash-up. Unfortunately, while the movie proves to be modestly entertaining, the idea of bringing the steampunk aesthetic to the world of martial arts fails to truly come together. Tai Chi Zero is a tale of style over substance. Style wins, but it is not for a lack of trying. Director Stephen Fung (House of Fury) throws everything but the kitchen sink at the screen.
The film opens on a gold-tone battlefield where Qing Dynasty forces clash with a cult army. It is a battle that is not given all that much context, but it seems to be a fight between tradition and the encroaching influence of the West. That is all well and good, and sets up the central conflict of the tale, although it becomes manifest in a different fashion a little later in the film with the arrival of a Western educated villain and his team powered railroad machine.
At the center of the battle is Lu Chan, aka The Freak (real-life martial-arts champion Jayden Yuan). We watch as he goes about beating off a horde of Qing warriors before the order is given to unleash his true power. A fellow cult warrior races into the action and smacks poor, simple Lu Chan on a weird wart thing on his forehead. His eyes glow from unseen energy and he lays waste to all for a minute before collapsing to the ground.
It turns out Lu Chan is some sort of prodigy who can learn kung fu by just watching it and the knob on his head sort of supercharges his abilities, but each use brings him closer to death. A friendly doctor says he must learn an internal kung fu to survive. He is sent to Chen Village to learn Chen-style Tai Chi.
From here they start to pile on the plot threads. Lu Chan is to learn a style that is forbidden to be taught to outsiders, he falls for the daughter of the town's kung fu master, Yuniang (Angelababy), even though she is engaged to Fang (Eddie Peng), a man educated in the West who brings a machine to lay railroad ties. Of course, Fang as a grudge against the town and is also in love with his help, Claire (Mandy Lieu). There is more going on, but never amounts to much. The threads sort of choke each other out, none of them have enough room to develop.