Story: Junbao (Jet Li) and Tienbao (Chin Siu-Ho) live together in a Shaolin temple, but Tienbao's hot tempered nature gets the two into
trouble on more than one occasion. One day the two are thrown out of the temple because of that. As wandering monks they try to get by, but they
realize that they have to look for real work. Eventually, they find shelter at an inn that is the hideout of some rebels that are revolting against
the cruel military rulers of the province. There Junbao and Tienbao also meet Siu Lin (Michelle Yeoh), who is suffering from a broken heart, and
Li (Fennie Yuen), who Tienbao seemingly has some interest in. However, from this point on the two friends go seperate paths. Junbao wants to help
people and stays with the rebels who protect them while Tienbao wants to make a carrier and therefore goes to the army in order to work his way
up the ladder under the eunuch Jin (Sun Jian Kui) in the shortest amount of time possible. In the end, the army finds the hideout of the rebels and
the two former friends now fight on different sides against each other.
Review: "Tai Chi Master" is one of the most entertaining martial arts movies of the last 20 years. One reason for that is that it's one of the
few rare occasions that Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh are sharing the same screen and another one is the great chemistry between Li and Chin Siu-Ho.
A friendship put to a test may not sound like the best starting point for an original story but it's exactly the story that fulfills its purpose
in great measure and is mainly responsible for the film's high entertainment value. Furthermore, the biggest advantage of the movie is director
and fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping who most likely can't save himself from the flood of requests after his work for "Matrix" and "Kill Bill" anymore
and once again shows here why he became so successful later on. "Tai Chi Master" is a fantastic martial arts movie that combines innovative fights,
charismatic characters and good humor and therefore stands as a true gem of the genre that no one should miss out.
Junbao is the more naive one of the two friends, at some points you even get the feeling that Tienbao is without a doubt the more clever one, but Junbao's heart is in the right place and he lives according to the teachings of buddhism. Tienbao on the other hand already shows certain character traits from the very beginning that underline the fact that there is nothing more important to him than wealth and glory. Accordingly his impending betrayal is already apparent from the start. Interestingly, there are also a few moments during which you can see a trace of remorse in his eyes, but then he looks at the greater picture and what he aims for and eliminates any remainder of such feelings right away. Eventually he becomes more and more cruel so that even the eunuch who takes him under his wings is a bit appalled at his brutality. In the end good and evil have to face each other of course, whereas the latter is actually the perfect example of a career-minded loner who gets rich at the cost of other people by ruling with an iron fist. Seldomly you get to see the change of a character that is more or less good at the beginning so well achieved as in this movie.
Of course, this doesn't mean that Tienbao's transformation is perfect, for that the movie's high pacing and the amount of fights and character introduction leaves no space, but Junbao's former friend becomes more and more detestful as time progresses and he gets his hand on more power by the second so that he is the perfect villian. Jet Li plays his part especially charismatic this time which makes it very easy to root for him. He also cuts a pretty fine figure in the humorous scenes. Actually, the humor in "Tai Chi Master" is standing out quite a lot. There are some very well implemented jokes which also derive from the nice chemistry between Jet Li and Chin Siu-Ho (the two are also friends and yet fight each other in "Fist of Legend") at the beginning and from the loveable supporting characters like the taoist, played by Yuen Cheung-Yan. The situation comedy is often done so well that you sometimes even miss seconds of the film because of laughter. There is also a lot to laugh about when Junbao loses his sanity, however, there is a bit too much slapstick, too, which can be a somewhat of a downer.
As "Tai Chi Master" is simply coherent as a whole, every one of the characters gets some time on screen even if just in fast-forward mode and the individual fates can be touching, it's difficult to state that the fights are the hightlights of the film. In any case they do push the quality level of the movie to the top. Every fight has a few genuine elements, be it the encounter of the two friends at the beginning with an army of shaolin students or their fight against each other when Junbao tries to save Siu Lin. Naturally, you get a special treat at the end as Junbao internalizes the martial art of Tai Chi which doesn't just help him to heal his soul and live in peace with the world but also gives him a clear advantage in battling Tienbao's powerful martial art style. The fights are perfectly choreographed and wires are really just used where it seems necessary. There also is no unnecessarily fast editting either or artificially increased frame rate. The very well done directing of Yuen Woo-Ping underlines the strength of a martial arts film and is thus nice to look at.
All in all the conclusive movie, whose high pacing doesn't give you any time to breathe, is only overshadowed by a sudden ending. It's not as if you couldn't tell that it's coming, but maybe the best comparison is like instantly slamming the brake when going over the finish line and though the race is over there is nothing like a celebration. Of course, there are many HK-movies that have this kind of problem which is why it carries only little weight.
Michelle Yeoh also gets some brief moments to shine and proves once more that she is really one of the few women in the genre that can keep up with men, but she eventually is outshined by Jet Li and Chin Siu-Ho, nonetheless. A nice soundtrack is giving the very good overall picture the final touch, however.
No martial arts fan should miss "Tai Chi Master". Jet Li's explosive interpretation of Tai Chi gives the movie its special note and Yuen Woo-Ping proves to be a master of martial arts cinema.