Film Review – Man of Tai Chi
Man of Tai Chi
In the world of martial arts, the practice of Tai Chi is considered a “soft” martial art. It typically involves slow movements and lots of meditation. Outside of a few knowledged individuals, Tai Chi is not known as a method of fighting. So it would seem a bit unusual for a film about martial arts to employ the practice of Tai Chi as a method of fighting. That, however, is exactly what actor-turned-director Keanu Reeves has done with his first feature film in the director’s chair, Man of Tai Chi.
The story follows a man in China named Tiger Chen (Tiger Hu Chen), who practices a particular style of Tai Chi and works as a delivery guy. While practicing at the temple with his master, Tiger learns that he can use Tai Chi as a means to power, and thus can use it to fight. His teacher warns him of the path that could lead down and says to meditate on it. Tiger ignores his master’s advice and sets out to be a competitive fighter, which leads him to attract the attention of Donaka (Keanu Reeves), a powerful businessman who offers Tiger a lot of money in exchange for fighting in underground matches. When Tiger’s master’s temple comes under a real estate threat, Tiger takes Donaka up on his offer and enters the world of underground fighting.
It’s pretty obvious from the outset that Reeves has taken a number from his time making the Matrix films. First off, he’s making a kung fu film, second, his film’s star was a stunt fighter and trainer on the Matrix films, and third, he’s using fight choreographer and action director Woo-Ping Yueng, also from the Matrix films. Perhaps the most notable similarity to the Matrix series, outside names, is the way the film is delivered. Reeves uses simple framing and editing techniques, but from time to time inserts lavish establishing shots and moments of choral music, climaxing in overly cataclysmic bouts that feel as out of place as they look. Fortunately, the film’s fight scenes are lively and display an unusual style that is often not seen in this manner. Reeves isn’t the first person to feature Tai Chi as a fighting style in a kung fu film, but his approach is rare enough to stand out as something different as far as an American audience’s association with kung fu films goes.
Like with any genre, there are a set of tropes that have been established over the years that help categorize kung fu films. Unfortunately, the story takes shortcuts along these tropes to get Tiger Chen from point A to point B and on. Reeves isn’t being experimental in regards to these shortcuts like he is with presenting Tai Chi as a fighting style. There’s surprisingly a lot of story here surrounding a very Faustian set of ideals—selling of one’s soul for gain, corruption of the innocent, and determination for success. Unfortunately, this means that the story gets short-changed under certain tropes, or rules, that are a part of cause and effect—that, in short, make genre films understandable. There are moments where the journey of Tiger Chen is not earned enough for me to feel that said journey is complete. Often times the master of the protagonist knows a certain special move that is a secret part of their martial art; it defines it to the point of being the answer, the undefeatable move. This move is usually ignored at first by the pupil, but later, upon going through trials, the move is learned and is eventually used to defeat the final opponent. Tiger Chen never earns his moves, and instead they come to him because that’s what’s supposed to happen.
Despite some simple flaws, Reeves has crafted a seriously entertaining film. While it’s not perfect by any means, the action scenes are staged with the right amount of care so that what could easily tread into familiar territory instead comes out fresh. Using Tai Chi as a method for fighting allows the martial arts on display to escalate and change based on the style of fighter Tiger Chen goes up against. Cinematographer Elliot Davis shoots the fights in a steady motion, pairing moves with cuts made by editor Derek Hui that complement the movements of the different styles of fighting. There are moments when the editing does take over a bit instead of allowing longer takes to show us the talent of the people involved, which is what makes a kung fu movie so enjoyable to watch. It’s like porn in that way; stories are often simply there to service the next fight scene. Films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon attempt to use kung fu to service the story, but this is not an Ang Lee film, and ultimately it’s the kung fu on screen that makes this film succeed.
Tiger Hu Chen is a welcome addition to the kung fu world. He doesn’t look lean and mean like Jet Li, he doesn’t have the humorous timing of Jackie Chan, nor the ferocity of Tony Jaa, but that’s all a good thing. With his small, wiry frame and unassuming facial features, Tiger Chen makes for a great underdog in the way Jackie Chan used to, but with his own sensibilities. Given a role that covers a range from innocent to corrupted, Chen provides the goods, and stands his own, carrying the film around his small shoulders. That is, until Keanu Reeves steps in as villain/tempter Donaka. There’s something about watching Keanu Reeves get animated in a way that the heroes he usually plays don’t allow him to get. But when he does get those roles: Whoa… When Reeves snaps back that hysterically ridiculous evil laugh, you can’t help but laugh maniacally with him. Okay, so that’s not maniacal laughter you’re doing, but that doesn’t matter, because you laugh at his laugh in a way that comes from the depths of your gut and out. When Reeves raises an evil fist to evil and runs awkwardly down a tunnel in Kenneth Branagh‘s Much Ado about Nothing laughing maniacally, it rivals anything Michael Keaton brings to the film. Here is no different. Keanu is a great villain in the way George W. Bush was a great president; they both believe they were great. This isn’t just some ironic appreciation; there’s real passion in this, despite my poking fun. And that’s what wins in the end—a passionately made kung fu film that’s a sight better than most released or made stateside.