Photo Caption: Choreography extraordinaire Sammo Hung couldn’t save “Tai Chi Zero.” Photo credit: Variance Films/Okazaki Hirotake.
Most movies about Cambodia focus on the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, the Communist military regime that once ruled the country. “Two Shadows” is also a story about Cambodia’s civil war, but focuses on its aftermath: a tale about a family that emigrated to the U.S. and the loved ones they left behind.
Sophisticated, SoCal gal Sovanna (Sophea Pel) dresses in chic, neon-colored fashions. With her jet black hair swinging in the wind, she thrives on beach breezes and swaying palm trees. Along with her white boyfriend, Sovanna loves to party. Outwardly, she’s cute, confident and sometimes cocky. But at home, she has to deal with a drunken father wracked with guilt over her mother’s death and the loss of his son and other daughter. One day, a letter arrives from Cambodia claiming to know where that daughter and son are 20 years after they went missing at the end of the war. Unable to convince her father to take the message seriously, Sovanna heads to Cambodia alone.
After befriending a local named Munny (Polo Doot) with a motorbike, she tours the area for some breathtaking scenes of Khmer culture dotting the countryside in a palette of heady colors. The stunning architecture with Hindu and Buddhist influences is a sheer visual pleasure. And mixed in with ancient landmarks and rural marketplaces is everything modern from autos and billboards, to karaoke bars and rap music.
Munny, who lost family to Pol Pot, acts as Sovanna’s tour guide and goes out of his way to help find her missing siblings. His advocacy also gives her “street cred” among locals who peg her for a rich American because of her accent and expensive clothes.
After locating a young singer named Reaksmey (Lida Lang) who could possibly be her long, lost sister, Sovanna has to be careful not to reveal too much too soon. Attempting to gain the woman’s trust, she inadvertently places herself in a dangerous situation and, before long, is forced to fight off crazed criminals. As the women struggle to escape their tormentors, they develop an inexplicable bond.
A tender story about one family’s enduring love, “Two Shadows” chronicles the devastating effects of war on a very personal level. While Sovanna’s determination helped her survive the atrocities of the past, it is her memories of a loving family that drives her to bring them together again.
Surely, the “zero” in the movie title “Tai Chi Zero” must be referring to Yang Luchan (Jayden Yuan), the character dubbed “The Freak.” Even after being beaten numerous times by villagers for having the audacity to want to learn their particular style of kung fu, he keeps coming back for more. What a loser!
The Freak also has a piece of flesh, called a horn, protruding from the top of his forehead. Whenever it gets hit, he’s empowered with mad martial arts skills — enough to defeat an entire army. But following one particularly brutal battle, The Freak is advised by his clan’s doctor to find Chen Village and learn a superior form of fighting from Master Chen (Tony Leung Ka-Fai). Unfortunately, he is not welcomed there, and Master Chen is nowhere to be found, either. Nevertheless, The Freak remains undaunted. He even falls for Master Chen’s daughter Yuniang (Angela Yeung Wing) in spite of her clobbering him, and gets sucked into a plot involving Yuniang’s boyfriend, Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng). Known as the village’s black sheep, Zijing is determined to build a Western-style railroad through Chen Village. But when he gives a presentation that goes horribly wrong, he’s ridiculed. That’s when he goes into action, bringing in foreigners to back him up, including a new girlfriend, Claire, and a gigantic locomotive named Troy No. 1.
As if to make up for its lackluster storyline, this film exploits a plethora of flashy visual effects. Words pop up next to characters’ faces, while raucous music blasts out a loud score. Hyped-up colors are deployed and over-the-top humor is also used in an effort to be relevant in late 19th-century China. But even with martial arts choreographer extraordinaire Sammo Hung doing the honors, a central plot is evasive in this script that just tries too hard. Instead of referencing The Freak, that “zero” in the movie’s title might just be pointing to its overall score.
A special screening of “Two Shadows” took place on November 4 at Admiral Theater (2343 California Ave. SW., Seattle, WA 98116). “Tai Chi Zero,” which was released October 19, is not currently playing in theaters.