Published: May 14, 2015

On the evening of Friday, March 6, 2015 University of Northern Colorado Professor Kenneth Chan visited campus to give a lecture titled “Steam-Punked Kung Fu: Transnational Modernity in Hong Kong Director Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi Films.” There were twenty-some audience members mostly consisting of undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty but also including members of the public. Professor Chan examined two linked films directed by Stephen Fung, Tai Chi Zero and Tai Chi Hero (both released in 2012), which mix kung fu with a kind of retro sci-fi called steampunk. Steampunk stories, a prominent example is Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), emphasize a kind of mechanized—cranks, cogs, gears, etc.—futurity that strikes us in the digital age as both quaint and a possible alternative path modernity could have taken. For Fung’s films, set in nineteenth century China in the waning years of the Qing Dynasty when China faced imperialist threats of foreign domination, the meeting of technology and Tai Chi serves as a valuable perspective on the fraught relationship between modernity, western cultures and an indigenous Chinese identity. In the films, as Professor Chan argued, masters of either practice, that is science or Tai Chi, are endowed with superhuman abilities: flight or undefeatable martial prowess, for example. Rather than simply restage the tired antagonism between technological advancement and an eternal Chinese tradition, however, Professor Chan argued that the films depict a much more nuanced situation in which both an understanding and employment of scientific knowledge and a deep mastery of Chinese traditional practices are necessary for China’s modernization and successful encounter with the western imperialist powers. Professor Chan’s presentation elicited a number of questions from the audience and stimulated much discussion.