Stephen Fung believes his Tai Chi trilogy marks a great leap forward
Stephen Fung sees his lavish martial arts trilogy as a springboard to even bigger things, writesVivian Chen
For years, Stephen Fung Tak-lun battled against detractors who saw him as a former pop idol who had, somehow, managed to cross over to filmmaking by directing a few comedies starring his best buddies.
That's probably a closed chapter now: the 38-year-old has completed two instalments of a planned trilogy of special effects-laden martial arts blockbusters - and launched the first as a non-competition entry at the Venice Film Festival last month.
Financed by mainland film giants Huayi Brothers and Taihe Film Investment, the Tai Chi franchise revolves around the rise to greatness of kung fu hero Yang Luchan (played by Jayden Yuan Xiaochan) in late 19th-century China. Tai Chi 0, the first chapter which opens on Thursday, features Yang's struggle to leave home - where he has grown up bullied as the village idiot - to begin his training to become a warrior with the help of several mentors (including one played by Tony Leung Ka-fai), and Yu Niang, a young woman (Angelababy Yeung Wing) he falls in love with.
The antagonist of the film is her husband, Zijing (Eddie Peng Yu-yen), a top-hat-wearing Anglophile who will stop at nothing to beat Yang down.
"I respect filmmakers who indulge themselves, but I always want to make commercial films that are nicely done," says Fung. " Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings are commercial successes and yet at the same time are still good films that are enjoyed not only by a privileged few."
Tai Chi "is the biggest production I've directed so far, especially as it's a trilogy". Fung says mixing rural Chinese landscapes with industrial-era iconography, such as steam-powered machines, is crucial for the series.
"I find the clash of the East and West during that period of history especially fascinating. The industrial revolution was rolling out like a wildfire in the West. They created machines that looked monstrous in the eyes of average Chinese men who were still primitive in terms of modern technology."
That explains the use of automata in the film, created by the post-production team which had previously worked on Tsui Hark's 2010 mystery epic Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.
Fung says the visuals are a good match for the film. "I've been allowed a lot of freedom creatively. The village, for example, was shot in not just one but several locations to achieve that whimsical ambience we were looking for."
Creating the weaponry was another source of excitement. "I'm a fan of the Transformers saga and Hayao Miyazaki's animation, so being able to create the machines was a dream come true. The use of robots and machines in fights is not so common in traditional Chinese kung fu films," says Fung, whose films were action-choreographed by Sammo Hung Kam-bo. "I believe that Tai Chi can provide some fresh angles for the audience."
Now seemingly at ease in the director's chair, Fung says he enjoys both filmmaking and acting. "Being a film director, it's true I work with a team but there's not so much democracy. After all, people are counting on me to make the final call. But as an actor, I'm more passive. I'm paid to follow orders."
Educated in graphic design at the University of Michigan, Fung began his career in showbusiness as one half of pop duo Dry with songwriter Mark Lui Chung-tak, then made his acting debut in 1995 alongside Josephine Siao Fong-fong in Ann Hui On-wah's Summer Snow.
Ever since he made his directorial debut in 2004 with En ter the Phoenix, an action comedy about the heir to a gang boss consolidating his power - also starring Eason Chan Yik-shun, Daniel Wu Yin-cho, Fung and ex-girlfriend Karen Mok Man-wai - the heartthrob-turned-filmmaker has been looking for opportunities on the mainland.
Last year, he co-founded film production company Diversion Pictures with Wu, a long-time friend and colleague.
"The company is not limited to producing only films, but will also provide advertising and production services including finding investments for other film projects," Fung says.
Having his own company means more say in quality control for the films he produces: "Daniel and I want to try different things, something edgier. We see the market is ready for this. It's more efficient when I have my own team. So it will all work out more smoothly."
He has chosen Beijing as his base. "You have a big enough market on the mainland that allows films like Tai Chi to be made. I'm able to live my dream, otherwise I wouldn't be able to realise my vision," he says.
Wherever he's based, however, he's not going to sacrifice quality for box-office success, Fung says. "Films like A Simple Life, though funded by Chinese investments, are still Hong Kong films by any definition. That film is very much in the Hong Kong style and is about the city's life.
"[Censors] on the mainland have been more tolerant on historical subject matter and fantasy tales. If you want to make a film that blurs the lines, or touches upon topics that are very sensitive, then you need to be prepared to not have support in the mainland market," the director says.
Working with a hefty budget (US$15 million for part one alone) and a veteran production team, Fung feels he's closer to achieving fame on an international scale.
"I see bigger opportunities than ever now because China is becoming the second biggest box office market behind North America. Obviously, investors will be more conscious of these growing Chinese influences. It's definitely positive for filmmakers in my generation."
The growing global recognition of Chinese cinema is still largely limited to the martial arts genre, however, and Fung says that situation won't change overnight.
"If you watch Hollywood, you want to see big blockbusters. You'd be shocked if they suddenly made a kung fu film starring only Caucasian actors. It's the same with Chinese cinema. If you make one romantic film hit, you might have your moment, like Jeremy Lin did in the NBA, but it doesn't mean you can change the perception just like that."
Tai Chi 0 opens on Thurs; Tai Chi Hero opens on Oct 25