September 27, 2008

DVD Review: Tai Chi Master

This film was originally released on DVD (region 1, anyway) back in 2000, in an edition that was tagged as part of the "Jet Li Collection." However, it should be noted that it bore the title Twin Warriors, it had about three minutes cut, and was devoid of the original language and music track. In lieu of the audio omission, the DVD came complete with an English dub track and redone music. In other words, it did a terrible disservice to the film, and I have to admit to owning it. Of course, I enjoyed the film, but it was not nearly as good as it would reveal itself to be in its proper form. Now we get the original cut, complete with the original Cantonese audio, remastered video, and a host of extras courtesy of The Weinstein Company (which was known for mercilessly cutting foreign films), Genius Products, all under the Dragon Dynasty banner. Now, if you are a fan of martial arts films, be sure to check out the Dragon Dynasty line.

The film stars martial arts legend Jet Li, who was in the prime of his career at this point. Alongside Li is another legend in Michelle Yeoh. The two pair up to work under yet another legend, Yuen Woo Ping. Of course, while the first two were well respected, it was Yuen Woo Ping, who had been making classics since the 1970's, skills that made it possible for this film to do nothing other than succeed.

The story of Tai Chi Master is a simple one. This movie is anything but deep and it doesn't have to be. Not every film needs to be a comment on society, or realistically portray reality, or do anything other than entertain. Now entertain, that is something this movie excels at. While anyone who has watched kung fu films before will recognize the story, by the time twenty-minutes pass you will have a pretty good idea how it will turn out. That is besides the point, we all know that the story, while still an important part of the movie, is primarily the stage-setter for the fight scenes, and Tai Chi Master has plenty of those, ranging from the comical to the deadly serious.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, let's take a look at it. We are introduced to the young Jun Bao (Jet Li) and Tien Bao (Chin Siu Ho), two young students at Shaolin Temple. We follow them as they grow up, learning the ways of Shaolin kung fu, while also revealing Jun Bao to be the intelligent, thoughtful one, while Tien Bao is hotheaded and prone to acting out. This hotheadedness leads to the duo getting in trouble frequently, ultimately resulting in their expulsion from the temple.

Before long, the duo fall in with a group of rebels who are fighting the good fight against the current evil regime of the eunuch Governor. Along the way, the two meet Siu Lin (Yeoh), a jilted wife in town looking for her louse of a husband. Together they join forces with Miss Li (Fannie Yuen), the leader of the rebels.

As the characters move forward, our wayward Shaolin monks must learn to function in the outside world, leading to some comical situations. Ultimately Tien Bao is taken with the thought of power and wealth, leading him to join the Governor's army. This comes as a shock to Jun Bao, who goes into a state of shock that must be broken as we steam towards the climactic battle.

The story is recognizable, friends destined to become enemies, good versus evil, the finding of the inner self, nothing new here. What makes this film so good can be narrowed down to two things: 1. the performance of Jet Li, and some of the supporting players, and 2. the fight scenes.

The fights are plentiful and well staged. Yes, there is wire work, it is hard to avoid that in these types of films, but it is nicely executed. There is a great fight featuring Michelle Yeoh and her husband's mistress, which later involves Jet Li. Then their are a couple of fights between Li and Ho. Yuen Woo Ping knows how to deliver great looking fights, and those involved have the skills to pull them off. If you like martial arts, you will love these fights.

Jet Li is an interesting actor. He is a martial artist first and an actor second. Years ago, when I first started watching his films, I thought he was wooden and did not have much in the way of charisma. Boy, was I wrong. Li may not be a good actor, he may never be a good actor, but what he brings to the screen, especially in these types of roles, is a quiet charisma. He does not act bigger than the screen, yet he commands your attention. He internalizes so much, and that is what makes this role work, thus carrying the film.

Audio/Video. The technical specs are good, not great. The video is the best I have seen, yet still comes up a little middling. It is a little grainy and does not pop as I think it could, but I am not complaining, this looks good. The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The Cantonese track is presented in its original mono track, which is mediocre, and in a 5.1 mix, which sounds better. The English dub is also present, and while not the ideal way to watch the film benefits from the strongest quality.

Extras. This Dragon Dynasty title was originally conceived as a two disk set, but it appears that all the extras fit nicely on a single disk.
  • Commentary. This track features Dragon Dynasty regular Bey Logan, a Hong Kong cinema expert who truly knows his stuff. His commentaries are stacked with background information on everyone and everything and are well worth your time.
  • Nemesis: An Exclusive Interview with Star Chin Siu-Ho. This interview has Siu-Ho telling of his childhood, how he got involved with martial arts, all the way through the filming of this movie. He also speaks of the effect that Bruce Lee had on martial arts in the 1970's. (20 minutes)
  • The Birthplace of Tai Chi: On Location in Chen Village. This is interesting in the information it gives on the history of Tai Chi. (15 minutes)
  • Meditations on the Master: Brett Ratner & Elvis Mitchell Discuss Yuen Woo Ping. Interesting, but why Ratner? His presence is a mystery to me. I much preferred listening to Mitchell's thoughts. (14 minutes)
  • Twin Warriors: Brett Ratner & Elvis Mitchell Discuss Jet Li & Michelle Yeoh. See above. (15 minutes)
  • Original Home Video Trailer. The trailer for the tuncated and dubbed Twin Warriors version.

Bottomline. This is one of those movies that you must have in your collection. I do not believe it is the best Jet Li or Michelle Yeoh film, but it is certainly in the upper echelon of their respective catalogs. A straight forward story that is flavored with spectacular fights and choreography, plus Jet Li. What else do you want?

Highly Recommended.


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