Chen Style Kung Fu: Stephen Fung on Tai Chi Zero and Tai Chi Hero

The director explains ass-kicking Tai Chi and the need to innovate within the Kung Fu genre.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

In Los Angeles, it’s rare to have Hong Kong talent in person, besides the Hollywood folks like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and John Woo. I’ve made that flight, 14 ½ hours, and Hong Kong was awesome, but I couldn’t do that for a press tour. Luckily, Toronto is a little more central and the Toronto International Film Festival is a big enough event that the Hong Kong filmmakers attend. We got to meet Stephen Fung in person, with his film Tai Chi Zero, which is actually only half the story. Tai Chi Hero is coming out shortly after. Zero follows Yang Lu Chan (Yuan XiaoChao) as he attempts to break into the Chen village, but their Chen Style Kung Fu is too strong. The film mixes rock n’ roll, steampunk and more styles, and part two only looks wilder. Zero opens October 19 in the states.

CraveOnline: Is Tai Chi Zero somewhat of a Chinese Expendables because you have all these martial arts legends showing up for at least a little bit?

Stephen Fung: That’s a very interesting question because nobody has ever asked me that. I don't know. I don't think so, even though we tried to get some legendary Kung Fu actors in the film. At least that’s not really the way we try to position it. We were trying to do something very new and try to break new barriers here and try to, I guess, utilize Tai Chi, but then we try to also bring in a lot of new, different genres into the film.

Why was it important to credit everyone’s resume when they’re introduced in the middle of the movie?

Actually, initially how that idea came about to credit their resume is that our leading actor is not a real actor, because he is an Olympic Wushu gold medalist. It’s the first time he’s ever been in front of a screen, so we want audiences to have a heads up in terms of don’t have a lot of expectation for his acting ability. But then I thought as I was shooting him, I thought hey, this guy is actually a pretty decent actor, but we still decided to put that in. I thought it was fun.

Is this sort of rock n’ roll martial arts?

I don't know but it’s just obviously we didn’t shoot the fight choreography with rock n’ roll music, but then I’m a big fan of heavy metal. I’ve seen Hollywood mix a lot of heavy metal with action scenes but with real martial arts choreography, I think this might be the first time. So just thought since we’re on the road to try to do something new, whether it will succeed or not, I don't know but at least we want to try.

Does the Hong Kong movie business need a jumpstart to do something different?

I think so because ever since Ip Man there’s been many other Kung Fu movies. I wouldn’t call them big box office successes, so I would say because a traditional Kung Fu movie, in terms of story, in terms of the martial arts itself, it’s very repetitive. We didn’t want to do anything repetitive. So in terms of whether it needs a kickstart, I think so. Then the demographics of the audience have changed. Now the latest survey [says] most moviegoers in China are between 18 – 25 years old. That might be another reason why the studio encouraged us to be as creative as possible and attract more of a younger crowd.

Traditional movies have not been doing well like The Lost Bladesman and Wu Xia?

They have done maybe not up to expectation I would say.

Did Tai Chi Hero not make it into the Toronto Film Festival?

It’s just because I’m still doing post-production for Tai Chi Hero and it’s going to be released in October, a month after Tai Chi Zero.

So there was no chance of getting both in the festival?


When does Tai Chi Hero come out in the states?

I’m not 100% sure but either a month after, like in November, or next January, something like that. Not that far away.

How did you come up with the story of the Zero and the Chan school?

The story is actually based on the real story of Yang Lu Chan. There really is a Chan village. There really is Chen Style Kung Fu and Chen Style Kung Fu is really what later on became Tai Chi. So that’s based on facts, but then the look of the village, and of course there wasn’t a steampunk railroad-building machine, those are obviously something we put in.

Western audiences may think of Tai Chi as a spiritual practice but I know from watching a lot of martial arts films it can be very powerful too. What is the unknown power of Tai Chi?

I guess with every person you ask, Chinese or Western, Tai Chi means different [things] to many different people. Some people would say it’s a martial art, some people would say it’s a philosophy with the yin and yang and the balance. Some people would say something else. You mean what’s Tai Chi to me?


Let’s put it this way. As you said before, to a lot of people in the west, Tai Chi is also a spiritual kind of experience. But then to us, making this movie, we didn’t want the so-called Tai Chi to have a lot of burden. We just want to make a fun movie that’s not to be taken too seriously really. We just wanted to use Yang Lu Chan’s story as a background and make a movie out of it that’s new and energetic and not care too much about the whole Tai Chi philosophy.

In the opening battle scene, how big of a real crowd did you have and how many did you duplicate with CGI?

We had a crowd of maybe 400, I think something like that.

What is your progression from House of Fury to Tai Chi Zero and Hero? What have you learned from previous films and what did you want to do moving forward?

House of Fury was my second film. I believe that if you want to make a good commercial movie, budget really matters. When I was doing House of Fury, I had a lot of visions in my head, but then because we were on a relatively tighter budget, I couldn’t realize those visions in the movie at the end. In terms of Tai Chi Zero, it’s a much bigger budget movie and then I got to be more creative and I guess we could spend a lot more time working on the details and every different aspect, the costume, the color and all that. I would say creatively, both movies I was trying to be as creative as possible but then it just so happens that this movie I get to realize those dreams of mine a bit more.

For the audience, it doesn’t look like House of Fury is lacking anything for budget.

I guess for me it is because we didn’t have a lot of time to shoot those fight scenes. Then the way I envisioned where the ending should take place and all that.

Where did you want the ending to be?

I wanted the character of Michael Wong in House of Fury to be kind of like a Bruce Wayne, where he has his own kind of Bat Cave with all this cool equipment. Of course we didn’t get that budget to create that set, so it ended up being a much smaller set in the soundstage.

Was directing always your goal, even when you started out doing stunts and acting?

I guess when I started, I didn’t realize that I have the ability to do so, but after a couple years acting, I discovered that there are stories I wanted to tell. Then I started doing music videos and short films and I found out that I’m actually competent doing it so I proceeded further. With help from a lot of friends and studio heads, I got to realize my dream.

How did you get the American name Stephen?

Oh, it’s given by my father. I was born in Hong Kong but it was a British colony. That’s why I guess Stephen is spelled with a PH, not a VEN.

About 10 years ago, Hollywood had a Hong Kong style period and everything was called Hong Kong style. What does Hong Kong style mean to you?

To me it’s a little different because Hong Kong style to me is very fast paced filmmaking. We shoot 60 different shots, setups a day. So to me the Hong Kong style is to me the filmmaking way. I guess you meant the Kung Fu. I don't know, I’m not very sure because as a Chinese person growing up in Hong Kong, everything we see in terms of martial arts, when we turn on the TV, it’s the same martial art. Production-wise it’s a lot different from film and TV but then we get those images around all the time. That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to make Tai Chi Zero because we wanted to have a different look and because it’s just a lot of those fights are repetitive.

I think to Hollywood it meant martial arts on wires, but to me it’s about the tone. In Hong Kong you can have a serious cop movie with wild, crazy humor. To the Hong Kong audience, that’s not weird. It’s just normal.

You’re right, and usually in a period piece, people fly around and there’s wire fu. I guess when I was young, Tsui Hark was already around so I saw a lot of wire fu and all that.

What was your experience on Gen X Cops?

It was fun. I was very young back then, like 23 or 24. So it’s the first time I participated in a bigger budget movie and then it was produced by Jackie Chan, one of my idols. At that point in my career, in my life, I got to work with a martial art legend in a big production and stylish costumes. It’s like ooh.

Did you miss the period where a lot of Hong Kong talent was coming to Hollywood? Would you have liked to have been a part of that?

I don't know, I think for me if I ever get the opportunity to work in Hollywood, I’d be very open to this idea. Things are different. I think we have different kinds of opportunities here. With the market in mainland China booming, I think there will be another wave of new talents being able to expand their horizon to a worldwide audience.

Is it more competitive now with the Thai industry and the Indonesian industry picking up?

I saw The Raid and I think it’s a very good movie. The martial arts is good. It’s got a new tone to it. I think it’s good that there are things coming in terms of martial arts coming from different parts of the world. If that makes it competitive, that makes it more reason we have to try to be innovative and try to create something new. At least try. It doesn’t mean that it’s always going to work. I don't know if this will work but at least we really poured our guts out trying to do something new.

Based on the trailer at the end of Tai Chi Zero, does Tai Chi Hero have even more fighting?

Yes, it does. You really have to see it as a two part movie because as our main character grows up, he actually learns his Tai Chi and starts displaying his Tai Chi moves. The Tai Chi that you see now, [you’ll see] the softer gentle way in part two. Because a lot of people asked me, “How come the Tai Chi I see in part one is not quite the Tai Chi I see old people doing in the park?” That’s because what you’re seeing is Chen Style Kung Fu and Chen Style Kung Fu is more aggressive. We have a Chen Style Kung Fu consultant on set all the time to make sure our moves are authentic. It’s later on that what you see today, it’s called the Yang Style Tai Chi, that’s later on developed by Yang Lu Chan, our main character in the movie.