August 1, 2013 by bck1402
Directed by Keanu Reeves
Yep, you read that right. Man of Tai Chi marks the directorial debut of Keanu Reeves. On top of that, Reeves stars at the main villain of the piece, Donaka Mark. Which makes it the very rare occasion that Reeves has played such a despicable villain. He’s often played the lost soul, the surfer dude, the romantic dude, the slightly dense goofball, the smart-ass, and of course, The One, usually all with some calm demeanour of a Zen Buddisht. There have been occasional flashes of anger or, at most, anger related rage, but usually, it’s that sense of calm he exudes. The most that I can remember of him playing a villain was as Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s production of Much Ado About Nothing.
Here, he simmers with a sense of danger and you get the sense that this is a role that no one would have ever put him in – unless Reeves got to direct the movie himself. The moments of rage that flash out seem so… unlike him. Didn’t stop the audience as tittering tho when he suddenly lets loose some kind of primal growl for no apparent reason. Critics might hold this one against him as evidence should he ever decide to step beyond his comfort zone again where acting is concerned. Although never let it be said that he didn’t take chances.
All that aside, I did have a particular interest in watching this movie and it actually came about a year or so back when an odd little video popped up on YouTube. It was a “Proof of Concept” video for a bot and dolly camera system, showing how the system worked in filming a martial arts fighting scene and it featured Reeves talking about the system. I’ll let you check it out for yourself, and you get the idea what he was aiming for.
It wasn’t long after that word came about Reeves directing his first movie, and that it would feature Martial Arts. And that he would be working with Yuen Woo Ping, The master Action Director who Reeves had worked with on The Matrix trilogy. At the very least, the action would be well served.
Then something else popped up. Even as Reeves was working on another ‘martial arts’ movie (at least, it was thought of as a Martial Arts movie since it was based on the legendary Japanese tale of the 47 Ronin – that is until the trailer popped up recently), he somehow found the time to produce and participate in (as host / interviewer / narrator) a very interesting and intriguing documentary, Side By Side. This was an examination on the traditional chemical Film vs Digital in terms of film-making. It was a very balanced and very well presented documentary that featured directors and cinematographers on both sides of the divide. It was obvious that Reeves was doing his research that would go into making his first movie.
Anyway, with all that in mind, there was a technical interest in catching this movie. One other element that I was interested in was the fight scenes. First of all, Tai Chi is not one of those Martial Arts that would be considered as a dangerous form. It is often seen as a slower form of Martial Arts, usually used as a form of exercise. But then, used properly, it can be a equally dangerous and lethal as any other form of Martial Arts. If you need a reference, I would direct you to the first of (what I call) the Father Trilogy films by Ang Lee called, Pushing Hands. (The other two movies are The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman. All three films are highly recommended.) Alternatively, you could try to check out The Tai Chi Master starring Jet Li.
In Man Of Tai Chi, Tiger Chen is a Tai Chi practitioner who gets drawn into the world of underground fights by Donaka Mark. Chen is pitted against various opponents of different styles, all designed to push Chen into becoming the ultimate fighter. Donaka’s motives for doing so are on the vicious side once it’s revealed – and whether you want to believe it or not, really is up to you as the viewer. Meanwhile, Captain Sung Jin Shi (Karen Mok) of the Hong Kong police is investigating these fights, and Donaka by default. As a plot point, it serves the story and the numerous fights that occur in the movie. So what we get, ultimately, is a showcase of Tai Chi versus other forms of Martial Arts ranging from Muay Thai andTaekwando to MMA and Pencak Silat (courtesy of upcoming action star, Iko Uwais, of The Raid).
Iko Uwais versus four thugs in The Raid
The use of the Bot and Dolly system is notable in a few of the fight scenes, especially in the way some of the fights are cut. The system serves the purpose of putting you, the viewer, right in the middle of the fight and as up-close as possible without the use of CGI motion capture. So, it you love fight movies, you’re in for a treat. The story holding all together is a little on the weak side, merely an excuse to string the fights together. Chen’s journey to the dark side is nothing to scream about and his eventual moment of redemption is, of course, expected. If Chen might seem familiar, he was Reeves’ training partner on The Matrix films and was featured quite prominently in The Matrix Reloaded as one of The Merovingian’s henchmen.
Reeves does well enough with his directorial debut, particularly in the handling of the fight and action scenes. The weak plot is dismissible while the acting has its problems. Again, from Reeves himself pushing himself a little too far from his comfort zone, and a little from Chen who seems to be equally lacking in terms of emotion and charisma. But with a film like this, we’re looking mainly at the action and fights first, and in that, it delivers. If you’re ore like me, you’d probably marvel at some of the technical aspects of the film as well. The Fight Club in the belly of the cargo ship is particularly well designed. The use of strobe lighting at times might be problematic for some.
Mind tho, the movie is in Mandarin, Cantonese and English, with subtitles for the Chinese scenes.