Honoring MAN OF TAI CHI: Keanu Reeves’s Kung Fu Fable

“You owe me a life!”

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Two martial artists face off in a Wulin competition. One is described by an announcer as a knockout artist, a punisher; a cameraman calls the other “our hero, Tiger Chen.” The men fight. Tiger brutalizes his opponent, fighting as if possessed, and he’s disqualified from the championship. The knockout artist is carried off on a stretcher. The cameraman appraises Tiger: “Boss, he’s a killer.” His boss is Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves), who observes different views of the same competition on five screens at home. He screams. As Keanu Reeves describes it, this scream was the actor making an unscripted, spontaneous decision that startled the crew, but the film’s director approved — the actor and the director being the same: Keanu Reeves. Reeves described his 2013 directorial debut Man of Tai Chi as “sophisticated camp,” and he explained to the Dissolve he enjoys “emotional action movies, action movies with content, not just spectacle.” This love of emotional action movies is reflected in Man of Tai Chi, a kung fu film well-liked by critics and audiences, but one that still feels overlooked and undervalued, and there’s just no good reason why.

Keanu Reeves has always contributed creatively to the movies he’s starred in, changing them in small but profound ways, getting involved: “I’ve always enjoyed being on sets and seeing where the camera was going and looking at the shooting schedule and understanding how the production is put together and how I fit into the story as a whole.” William Gibson once mentioned in his blog that Keanu Reeves had asked him to write his infamous club-sandwich monologue for Johnny Mnemonic. Reeves even knew that Lori Petty would be the lead in Point Break before anyone else did when Kathryn Bigelow cast her part. He told reddit during an AMA: “I remember I saw this woman come in driving this old beat up Cadillac and I was to meet actresses that day, and I saw this woman and I said ‘that’s the actress,’ and it turned out to be Lori Petty, and I was right. And she’s amazing.” And we have Keanu Reeves to thank for increasing John Wick’s kill count from about 12 to almost 80.

Reeves also played a major role in overhauling his character Jack Traven in Speed. Director Jan De Bont brought in Whedon to rewrite Graham Yost’s script — though Whedon is uncredited, he rewrote just about all of Speed’s dialogue. Whedon also reworked Jack Traven per Reeves’s suggestion. Whedon explained: “‘[Traven is] a maverick hotshot.’ I was sort of like, ‘Well, no, what if he’s not? He thinks a little bit laterally for a cop. What if he’s just the polite guy trying not to get anybody killed?’ Part of that came from Keanu.” But it seems likely all of that came from Reeves: he did not like Jack Traven’s original attitude, which was flippant, like John McClane with more one-liners and less concern for human lives. Reeves once told Entertainment Weekly: “I dealt with the LAPD before on Point Break, and the thing that came off is their concern for human life: ‘We get the bad guys, and we get to save the good guys.’ And with that basic tenet I began with Jack.”

Around 2010, Reeves took a more active creative role with his projects. He starred in and produced Henry’s Crime, and in 2012 he produced Side by Side, a highly-recommended documentary about digital and photochemical film where he interviewed filmmakers like the Wachowskis, Spielberg, Fincher, Scorsese, Lucas, and Lynch. The idea for Man of Tai Chi grew: it took about seven years from concept to execution, with the script written and revised for five years in collaboration with screenwriter Michael G. Cooney. Reeves contributed about 60% of the script and spent so much time with the story that he couldn’t imagine letting anyone else tell it.

Reeves also couldn’t allow anyone besides Tiger Chen to star in it — the script was inspired by Chen’s story, and there’d be no Man of Tai Chi without him. Reeves met Tiger Chen in 1997 when he was his personal trainer for The Matrix. The two would stretch for hours while Chen told Reeves stories about Chinese tradition, his hometown, martial arts, his training — including a story about his master, whom he said would hold birdseed in his hand, and when a bird would land to eat, he’d collect its chi so it couldn’t fly away. The Matrix set is also where Reeves met Man of Tai Chi’s action director Woo-Ping Yuen (Drunken Master, Kill Bill). With the help of cinematographer Elliot Davis (Twilight, Out of Sight), they filmed Man of Tai Chi using ARRI ALEXA in Beijing and Hong Kong over the course of 105 days.

Keanu Reeves knows how to make an action movie. The film draws inspiration from John Woo, Johnnie To, and the classic kung fu films Reeves grew up watching. John Wick director Chad Stahelski choreographed Sanda (Chinese boxing), Brazilian jujitsu, and Japanese karate, and Yuen added Tai Chi boxing moves. They blended seven or eight different fighting styles to create their own brand: Ling Kong Tai Chi. The film’s dialogue is just as diverse: Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. There are no stunt doubles. Like John Wick, the action is fluid, a pleasure to watch — no frenetic, Bourne-ripped shaky cam, most of the fighting was filmed with Steadicam. And like most great action movies, Iko Uwais is in it.

Man of Tai Chi is what Reeves called an “allegory about the pressures and seductions of the modern world.” It’s a morality play, a cautionary tale, the story of a deliveryman (Chen) seduced by the world of illegal prizefighting by mysterious mogul Donaka Mark. As he wins fights and gains power, he loses his compassion, his innocence, his soul. Man of Tai Chi explores the tension between objective and subjective, East and West, free will and control. It illustrates the way capitalism and the modern world encroaches on tradition, and the omnipresence of surveillance: eyes are always on Tiger, his public fights and his private moments, observed by Donaka Mark, his life like a reality show. Tiger even breaks the fourth wall, at one point slapping the camera out of his face. Keanu Reeves said: “Funny Games had a huge influence on Man of Tai Chi. Because Haneke addresses the audience, it brings into question the voyeur who becomes observed.” Tiger Chen becomes entertainment, his life on the big screen to amuse a wealthy, champagne-sipping audience: Tiger Chen, Man of Tai Chi, a journey into darkness.

Keanu Reeves cast himself as Donaka Mark, the villain of Man of Tai Chi, contributing the film’s most insane and insanely great performance. To Tiger Chen, he represents the temptation of the modern world, the Mephistopheles in this Faustian story. He’s seductive, soul-stealing, not unlike a vampire or cannibal. Even his home looks like Hannibal Lecter’s dungeon-style cell in Silence of the Lambs. Donaka foreshadows John Wick, a character who is also more like a supernatural force than a man. He engineers Tiger’s path from innocent to killer. Reeves told the Daily Beast: “I think of the Romans; a loss of humanity, in a way, and a people given to bloodlust.”

Tiger Chen is torn between two masters: light and dark, yin and yang. He struggles against someone who tries to own and manipulate him, but he also grapples with his desire for power and the killer inside him. He must confront the darkness and subdue his demons before returning to light, to innocence, resisting the pull of the Western world. Keanu Reeves explained: “Genre movies can be social commentaries. They can be used like a Trojan horse. I thought that we could make this martial arts movie that was also a fable, a cautionary tale, something hopeful.” And Man of Tai Chi does offer something hopeful: a lesson in how to preserve your best self in a world that seeks to destroy the good in us.

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