Videogame aesthetics and Steampunk stylings are pounded into an indigestible pulp in “Tai Chi Zero.” A tediously frenetic kung-fu action-comedy about a 19th-century Chinese village under threat from encroaching industrialists, this first installment in a big-budget trilogy starring Olympic gold-winning martial artist Jayden Yuan manages the curious feat of being at once relentlessly energetic and almost continually uninvolving; the title more or less sums up the amount of pleasure to be had here. Though offshore prospects look slim, the pic has performed well on the mainland since September, with sequel “Tai Chi Hero” due out later this month.
Hong Kong helmer Stephen Fung strikes an off-puttingly cartoonish note at the outset, opening with a hyperstylized desert battle setpiece in which Yang Luchan (Yuan), a bumbling but gifted fighter whose nickname is “the Freak,” goes ballistic on opposing Qing dynasty forces. Luchan’s crazed, Popeye-like prowess is triggered any time someone punches the ugly horn protruding from his forehead, which could be the death of him if used too often.
An army doctor sends Luchan to Chen Village to learn a special form of kung fu that won’t threaten his well-being. Yet Master Chen, the village leader, is nowhere to be found, and none of the supremely gifted warriors who make up the local population is willing to teach their secrets to this dopey outsider. Least willing of all is Chen’s beautiful daughter, Yuniang (Angelababy), who spends much of the pic either rebuffing Luchan or smacking him around, though he does manage to crib a few moves with the help of a friendly older villager (Tony Leung Ka-fai).
A far less good-natured outcast is Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng), Yuniang’s betrothed, who grew up in Chen Village but, to his great resentment, was never taught kung fu like everyone else was. Now a forward-thinking, European-educated industrialist, Zijing tries to convince the locals to allow the expansion of China’s railroad into their territory; when he’s laughed out of town, he seeks revenge by teaming with fetching East India Co. rep Claire Heathrow (Mandy Lieu). Together they show up in a massive, iron-clad contraption whose Steampunk-influenced machinery has the power to lay waste to the village.
While the ensuing tale culminates in a victory for ancient Eastern tradition over newfangled Western technology, “Tai Chi Zero” is nothing if not a zippy postmodern object. As a director, Fung has the maddening temperament of an ADD-afflicted child prankster; falling stylistically somewhere between a Looney Tunes short, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and the vastly superior martial-arts comedies of helmer Stephen Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle,” “Shaolin Soccer”), the film repeatedly treats its own artifice as if it were some kind of goofy joke.
Luchan’s backstory is covered in a short, monochrome sequence pointlessly filmed in the style of a silent movie (and featuring a brief turn by Taiwanese star Shu Qi as the boy’s mother). The characters and the actors playing them are introduced via ridiculously comprehensive onscreen text; extras, meanwhile, are labeled with question marks. Martial-arts moves are painstakingly identified and diagrammed, as if knowing the name and type of kung fu being practiced were a substitute for well-directed action. After about five minutes of this, viewers are likely to feel exhausted.
Surrounded by an ensemble of seasoned performers, Yuan makes little impression in a one-note village-idiot role; as the feisty Yuniang, Hong Kong model-actress Angelababy supplies what little rooting interest there is. The English-language romantic exchanges between Zijing and Claire in particular are painfully goopy to listen to, made more cringe-worthy by terrible dubbing.
Despite its obvious expense, the picture looks cheap and disposable. Luckily, the whooshing camerawork rarely slows down to linger on the production design anyway. Although the film is being released in 3D in Asia and the U.S., the version reviewed was in 2D. End credits include preview clips from “Tai Chi Hero,” which looks marginally more engaging than its predecessor; it could scarcely be less than “Zero.”