TAI CHI ZERO: A Steampunk & Martial Arts Mashup

I’m a huge fan of hybrid stories, particularly when it comes to science fiction, fantasy, romance, horror, and mystery. And, of course, I simply adore steampunk!

TaiChiZeroI’ve also enjoyed my fair share of martial arts films. I’ve notched my belt with many of the usual suspects along with more obscure titles like Against The Drunken Cat’s Paws (1982) and World of the Drunken Master (1979). But never in a million years would I have predicted a filmmaker would combine martial arts and–wait for it–steampunk.

Hmm, make that two million years.

So color me shocked and excited when, during a trip last year to Apple.com’s tailer page, I learned about director Stephen Fung’s martial arts mashup Tai Chi Zero. Steampunk and martial arts–in the same film! I was sold at the sight of the evocative, clockwork themed film poster.

Here’s the basic premise:

“Yang travels to Chen Village to learn a powerful form of Tai Chi. Though villagers are forbidden from teaching outsiders, Yang becomes their best hope for survival when a man arrives with a plan to build a railroad through the village.”

You can check out the trailer here. Tai Chi Zero is the first film in a trilogy.

Tai Chi Zero shot to the top of my To-Be-Watched film list. I caught it on Netflix as soon as was humanly possible. While it’s too soon to tell if Tai Chi Zero will rank among the best films martial arts has to offer, it certainly did some inventive things with the genre.

Naturally, there’s a lot of martial arts on display throughout the story. The first part of the film is devoted to Yang’s many attempts to become an apprentice and learn Chen Village’s specialized Tai Chi. Once there he meets Chen Yu Niang, daughter of Grandmaster Chen Chang Xiang (basically the village’s leader). Yu Niang is a compelling, strong character and she has an important role to play in the story.

Threatening the village is brilliant engineer Fang Zi Jing. Zi Jing and Yu Niang were once engaged, but he ended their relationship after the village residents rejected his company’s proposed railroad through their territory. Zi Jing launches a war machine in revenge, and that’s where the steampunk part kicks in.

Yang has a supernatural aspect to his character, but it doesn’t have a super strong bearing on the plot in my humble opinion.

The steampunk elements, while fun and kinetic, were purely aesthetic in nature. Unless something was lost in subtitle translation, nothing in the story explained why steampunk technology existed in this world. It wasn’t grounded in any kind of origin event—not even an eccentric inventor ahead of his/her time. The steampunk elements seemed to exist only to lend the fight scenes a different flavor.

But on further reflection, maybe that’s kind of the point. Tai Chi Zero is very much a “human vs. machine” tale. Chen Village has a long history and a powerful Tai Chi legacy. The residents are determined to prevent Evil Technology from destroying their carefully preserved knowledge. The message and social commentary are simple and to the point, but that’s not necessarily a negative thing.

TaiChiHeroTai Chi Zero also includes a number of quirky videogame-style visuals, like those in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. They’re pretty nifty, and add to the hyper hybrid nature of the story.

There’s also a subtle romance involving Yang and Yu Niang. As for the ending, it’s a bittersweet Happily-For-Now. Like many martial arts films, the hero and heroine seem to fall in love while battling one another! But like I said, it’s really subtle. According to spoilers on Wikipedia, the romance kicks into higher gear with Tai Chi Hero, the second film of the trilogy. Well, high gear for a martial arts steampunk mashup, anyway!

If you’re a fan of steampunk and martial arts, Tai Chi Zero is worth checking out, if only for the novelty of it. Stephen Fung and his team clearly worked hard to deliver a fresh spin on two different, but classic genres.

About the author

Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express. She’s also an author in the subgenre. To learn more about her published work, visit heathermassey.com.