Teaming of Hong Kong top-dollar action stars Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh pays dividends in “The Tai Chi Master,” a costume martial arter that should find plenty of play on Asian circuits. Film opened strongly in H.K. in early December.
Plot is the old chestnut about two Shaolin Temple pupils who make their way into the wicked outside world and take divergent paths. Ambitious Dong Tianbao (Chin Siu-hou) joins up with the nasty Royal Eunuch’s forces, while wholesome Zhang Junbao (Li) allies with feisty femme Qiuxue (Yeoh) against imperial oppression.
After Dong betrays his friends and almost kills Zhang, latter convalesces in the countryside, studies tai chiand takes on Dong and the Eunuch in a final set-to in their army encampment. In line with genre rules, (native Chinese) Taoist-based fighting styles are shown to triumph over (imported) Buddhist ones.
Pic, shot in mainland China, lacks the slickness and artier values of the best H.K. product but compensates with old-style, no-nonsense direction by vet Yuen Woo-ping and fine action sequences choreographed with his brother Yuen Cheung-yan, also responsible for the recent “Iron Monkey.”
Yeoh is overshadowed by the plot’s male rivalry but holds her own in several sequences. Li shows glimmers of personality in the recuperative section, played for laughs. Chin makes a fine villain.
Film’s music track plays on Li’s association with the “Once Upon a Time in China” series, even though the actor has since moved on. Color processing lacks sparkle, but production values are otherwise fairly generous.