By now you’ve probly noticed that I like searching for wisdom in martial arts movies the way some people do religious texts. Sorry, they’re just more fun to me than holy scripture. But man, when I find one that speaks to me I feel spiritually invigorated. TAI CHI MASTER (a.k.a. TWIN WARRIORS) (1993) is just such a sermon. It’s one of those stories full of symbolism that
1) seems easily applicable to life
2) makes for strong, mythical drama
And since it’s directed and choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-ping (in between IRON MONKEY and WING CHUN) it would already be worth watching just for the beautiful fights full of wild flourishes and ingenious gimmicks. This is a world where people frequently kick logs and barrels at each other and back, where most people have the ability to leap into the air and spin or flip several full rotations, where you fly up and swing on a chandelier and the lamp oil spills and makes the floor slippery so you land on top of the people who have fallen down and slide around on them like they’re snowboards.
It’s the story of two monks who become brothers by chance when Master Jueyuan (Lau Shun) assigns Jun Bao to be the senior to newcomer Tian Bao. Their relationship is established immediately: the older and bigger Tian Bao refuses to call Jun Bao his senior, sneaks looks at the older students practicing secret kung fu moves, generally gets the two of them into trouble. Jun Bao always knows better but is also willing to take the fall with his friend, and the master sympathizes with both of them. When they’re being punished he stands in front of them and slaps them to hide from the others that he’s sneaking them red bean buns.
As kids they practice sword techniques with brooms. The camera pans as they fight and pass behind a column and then suddenly are grown men – Jet Li (the year before FIST OF LEGEND) as Jun Bao and Chin Siu Ho (MR. VAMPIRE, also in FIST OF LEGEND) as Tian Bao.
I love this kind of larger than life training: they casually break stacks of bricks on their skulls while conversing, sleep standing on their heads, duel each other with their legs under the table at lunch. There’s a cool scene where they battle with the wet and twisted monk robes during laundry duty, and what they learn there comes back years later during a real fight.
Tian Bao is a little shit but he’s charming, and we root for him against an older student who cheats during a kung fu competition. Then he blows it by turning the incident into a fight with the teachers and illegally using the Buddhist Palm, which he shouldn’t even know about – he learned it by spying on his master. This escalates into a giant wooden pole battle between these I guess you call them twin warriors and the entire temple. They get expelled. But the master still cares about them so he gives them a reading list and some encouraging guidance. It’s time to learn from the real world. Take this as an opportunity. Tarantino dropped out of high school. Bruce Lee left Hollywood. Dave Chappelle went to Africa. Nina Simone went to France. Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam. Now you’re gonna leave the Shaolin Temple. Strive for excellence.
It’s a serious movie with several not-too-disruptive comic interludes. So it becomes about these goofballs trying to make it in a world they don’t understand. They get involved in a fight over protection money and Little Melon (Fennie Yuen, BULLET IN THE HEAD) helps them escape with makeshift wigs. We never see them bald again, so I wondered how long it was supposed to still be horse hair glued to them.
Tian Bao comes up with what seems like a good way to make money from his skills: “human meat bun” – letting people pay money to punch him. But the authorities show up on day one to take all his money as so-called taxes.
I dig that vegetarianism plays a part in the movie. They don’t eat meat because they’re monks, and of course easily-tempted Tian Bao goes for it as soon as he has a chance. “We must adapt ourselves. Remember what the master said– we must discover the spirit of Buddhism in the secular world. Here, I will try it first.” Jun Bao just shakes his head.
Little Melon offers them some of her tofu, though. And they witness a crazy incident where poor Qiu Xue (Michelle Yeoh, YES MADAM!) approaches, and is rejected by, her long-missing husband, who it turns out married a mean rich lady. It becomes a fight, which of course in this world means flipping tables through the air, jumping on top of them, making them spin, breaking them and turning their legs into stilts.
The boys help out and Little Melon lets them stay in her restaurant, The Laughing Buddha, which they discover is the headquarters for underground rebels who have been stealing from a general and redistributing. For the first time ever, Jun Bao sympathizes more with the rule breakers than Tian Bao does, because he knows they’re right. Tian Bao doesn’t want to be Robin Hood, he wants money for himself. So he joins the army of “The Royal Eunuch Governor Liu” (Sun Jian Kui, FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE) and Jun Bao stays with the rebels. At first Tian Bao uses his post to protect Jun Bao and the rebels, even seems to be working as a spy for them, but then he figures out that betraying them is the way to get that big promotion at work.
There’s an epic battle between all the rebels and the soldiers. Qiu Xue and Little Melon are left behind when Jun Bao is literally lassoed and dragged onto a horse by some of the other survivors. But he didn’t want to retreat – he’s like “fuck this, I’ll do it myself” and goes back to save them on his own.
The movie’s most impressive feat is that it plants all the seeds of Tian Bao’s weakness as comic relief and then turns them into villainy. Like, it’s played for laughs that he keeps having to catch Little Melon and he clearly is both excited and terrified to be touching her. And tries to have an excuse to hold on longer. This repression and compulsion toward the forbidden lead to the later scene where he kisses her while she lies limply, a prisoner. It seems like he’s gonna force himself on her until the eunuch comes in and ridicules him for needing women, and then he hits her, accidentally killing her, earning his boss’s compliments. You know I love the Star Wars prequels, but this would’ve been a good one for Lucas to use as a model for Anakin’s downfall. Too bad he’s more into samurais than kung fu.
Now that he’s full on Lord Vader he just sits outside at a table on a stormy day with a pot of tea and more fruits and pastries than he could eat in a week, with Qiu Xue tied to a tall cross. So actually maybe he’s more of a Jabba. When Jun Bao shows up, Tian Bao tries to convince him to join up so they can “be great men” together. Uh, no thanks. This leads to another classic Yuen Woo-ping fight where they’re climbing up the wooden structure that Qiu Xue’s cross is on top of, knocking pieces of it at each other, causing it to wobble and almost collapse until they knock other pieces into place to hold it up.
The titleistical tai chi mastery comes in during a period when Jun Bao is so stressed by guilt over what happened that he loses his shit and starts talking to wooden poles and ducks and stuff. But also he reads his master’s scroll about Chi and comes up with some martial arts philosophies by studying nature and the way a ball reacts to being hit when it bounces, spins, or floats on water. Next thing you know he can twirl his hands and create an air current that sucks in leaves and forms them into a ball. His understanding of how to flow with nature rather than against it is the way to defeat Tian Bao’s raw aggression.
During the final duel Jun bao says “Wealth and fame are temporary. I am acting for heaven.” I take religious statements like this as metaphor. He’s acting on behalf of heaven by opposing Jun Bao’s greed and lust for power, the cruel treatment of his soldiers and of their friend Little Melon. It’s pretty easy to see that none of the things Tian Bao stands for could be described as “heaven.” And Tian Bao’s actions don’t flow with nature. Treating everyone so cruelly to get his way will bounce back against him just like a ball being pushed under water.
To me the ending is tragic because I was invested in their friendship. It’s sad when Tian Bao’s plea for forgiveness as he’s dying turns out to be a trick. I wanted him to earn some kind of redemption. But not everybody does.
I’ve complained alot over the years about Miramax/Dimension/The Weinstein Company’s shitty treatment of all the Asian films they bought the rights for. And they originally released this with the alternate title and bullshit poster seen at the left here, seemingly trying to hide that it’s a period piece. And both Harvey Weinstein and commentary track historian Bey Logan have since been disgraced for other reasons. But I’m thankful for their properly titled Dragon Dynasty release. There are so many Hong Kong classics of this era that only exist in long out of print, non-anamorphic, poorly transferred and subtitled DVDs. But here they have one that’s clean and well translated and released on a high quality DVD and Blu-Ray.
TAI CHI MASTER deserves it. It’s a classic.
August 27th, 2019 at 11:54 am
This is definitely my favorite Woo-Ping movie. It’s take on spirituality as you eloquently touched on as well as brotherhood and honor actually made me look into tai chi when I was 12. My dad has practiced tai chi since the 70s and was proud that I had taken interest. I just told him that’s the magic of cinema.