Okay, for those who know me, I’m very into non-western steampunk. And I enjoy kung fu comedies. A good steampunk film isn’t just pretty-looking with quirky tech, but addresses shifting social and cultural values in light of early industrialization and urbanization. A good kung fu flick has me cheering at the melodrama, holding my breath (or my abs or my head) in sympathy to whatever punches kicks or wall-breaking tumbles the characters go through. At New York Comic Con this past weekend, I attended the screening of Tai Chi Zero, which promised the best of both.
The film certainly has a lot going for it, being from the same creative team behind Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer, and Detective Dee & the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (which I also loved), and starring almost every awesome kung fu master alive today. In terms of a sheer sense of hoopla and adventure, Tai Chi Zero just doesn’t fill a niche of a niche market, but is popcorn fare without any pretentions – and that’s what makes it so much fun. Mild spoilers ahead.
Tai Chi Zero focuses on three characters, who are all badass in their own way. Yang Luchan (Yuan Xiaochao) is “The Freak,” born with a single horn on his head called the “Three Blossoms Horn” that endows him with superhuman fighting skills when it’s struck. The problem is that if it gets hit too many times, the power could kill him. The solution? Find the Chen Village where they know a style of “internal” kung fu to help Luchan master his abilities. The other problem? The villagers refuse to teach outsiders their fighting style, including the village apothecary Yu Niang (Angelababy, and yes, that is her actual stage name), who is also the daughter of the mysterious Master Chan, the teacher of their village. Xiaochao retains Luchan’s puppy-dog enthusiasm, whose determination to master kung fu is explained by a pitch-perfect histrionic flashback rendered as silent film.
Yu Niang may have a soft spot for Luchan’s antics, but is no-nonsense about doing what she can to protect her village, no matter who is the threat. Yu gets extra points with me for being an independent female character whose decisions make a major impact on the plot of the film. She is equally as important as the adorkable Luchan, with her own personal conflicts as she reluctantly develops feelings for Luchan while also dedicated to help the black sheep inventor Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng).
Another adopted outsider, sympathetic villian Zijing chooses the path of a western education in London in order to fit in with his neighbors. He has good intentions behind his plans to bring development to the technologically-backward village. The villagers have never trusted him, however, and his resentment over their rejection is what motivates him to make a deal with the region’s Governor to get a railroad built right through their town. Thus heralds the arrival of a gigantic steam-driven railroad machine that looks like the love child between a Dalek and a Miyazaki nightmare.
Seeing Luchan battle his way to win the village’s respect compared to the failure of Zijing’s instituting of technological innovation (and a later tragedy that befalls him) pulled at my heartstrings in favor of the inventor. The film speaks to the complicated dynamics between sustaining tradition while remaining open to progress, and by the end of the film those questions aren’t fully answered. For all of the cheering we may do for the villagers as they stand up to the monolithic robot camping out at their front door, there is a bittersweet quality about this conflict that addresses a theme that I’ve seen Miyazaki also do: seeking the balance between keeping your past alive, while preparing for a better future.
This drama, of course, has resonance in China today. China’s industrial revolution has been happening for decades and is continuing at full-throttle today full of contradictions. As a result, the country has a growing middle-class and caste of super-nouveau riche with a fondness for western goods, but also acts as a mass producer for already industrialized nations. I’m no expert on Chinese modern culture, but perhaps Tai Chi Zero hits its intended audience as more than just another standard action flick as it struggles with an identity crisis connected to its emergence as an economic powerhouse.
But enough of the Serious Stuff. What also compelled me are the high-energy fight scenes and the cheeky self-referential subtitles and video game-esque pop-ups that constantly broke the fourth wall. All of these elements gave the film a sense of flippancy that came across as cheerfully anachronistic.
The only drawback to this film is a bit of misleading advertising: namely the aviator “The Rising Son,” “The Monk,” and “The Silent Wife” that were featured heavily in the film’s internet trailer don’t make an appearance in Tai Chi Zero at all. Instead, they are tantalizingly hinted at in an epilogue/second trailer that ran during the credits for the upcoming Tai Chi Hero. I suspect that this film had been too large in scope to be contained into one movie. Tai Chi Hero is set to release immediately after Zero this month in China with a US release for January 2013.
I’m looking forward to catching this new addition to Chinese steampunk.
In the meantime, be sure to check out Tai Chi Zero, coming out for a limited release starting October 19th in the U.S. You can find a list of local screenings here and also follow them on Facebook for the newest information.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker plans to be at the screening for Tai Chi Hero come next year. She is also the founding editor behind the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana and has been recently published in the academic anthologies Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style and Steaming into a Victorian Future. She also tweets.