nationalism despite the state

Steampunk + kung fu + colonialism + the Qing Dynasty = Tai Chi 1: Start At Zero (太极1:从零开始).

The plot is simple and the pace full-throttled. There is a village, where kung fu is treasured and passed down from generation to generation, but only to village members — no sharing traditional culture. There are masters who fly through the air and defeat mechanical trojan horses, which bring railway tracks and seductive foreign women. There is a phoney foreignor, who betrays his village and first love to redeem his personal honor. There is a latent hero, who learns kung fu despite the village’s prohibition against teaching outsiders, shuts down the trojan horse despite ignorance about things mechanical, and marries the village kung fu beauty despite being unconscious. All in 90 minutes of whirling feet and spinning hands, punctuated by moments of sudden stillness and insight into what happens to human hearts when forced into a corner.

Directed by Feng Delun (冯德伦), Tai Chi 1 strikes familar chords in unexpected ways — a Hollywood blockbuster with Chinese Characteristics. At the moment I’m thinking Rambo: First Blood, where the nationalism is expressed through and despite an individual’s isolation from the powers that be. In fact, military failure is the reason the hero has gone rogue. In Tai Chi 1, the isolated hero is a village, but still, there it stands on a hill, all alone confronting the organized and relentless greed of a disintegrating country. And that may be the point; nationalistic vigilatism is ideological speed for our alienated times. What’s more, like the desolate romanticism in that Sly blockbuster, government corruption and incompetance justify all sorts of choreographed street fighting and demolition. Corrupt government + unbearable situation + fists (or guns) of steel = hero. Love of a good woman? Optional. But if she does show up, make sure she kicks ass, too.

Speculation du jour: Tai Chi 1‘s emotional similarities to Hollywood’s romance with lone heroes has me wondering about the seductive addictions of vigilantism when we — the US or China — are the evil empire. The Tai Chi 1 theme rap makes the connections between the nationalist high explicit, echoing the Chinese national anthemn in its call for “everyone to stand up and show their true colors”. Similarly, the theme from First Blood reminds us that it’s been “A Long Road Home” from Vietnam. Just for fun, compare the theme rap of Tai Chi 1 with the theme song clip for Rambo 1 –– note the surging rhythms and hyper masculinity, the fact that the bad guys wear uniforms, and that the hero takes on the machine with his body. Finally, wonder at the ideological similarities between the Chinese village and Main Street, USA as longed for national homelands.

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