I loved MAN OF TAI CHI at Fantastic Fest. I think Keanu Reeves didn't make a spoof, or an homage - he made a genuinely great martial arts movie, just like the ones from our youth. He has a great eye and a sense of action choreography that gives the movie a visual style, and not only is his villainous performance a lot of fun, he gets terrific performances from everyone else, including Karen Mok and the amazing-to-watch Tiger Chen. Sometimes a simple, direct route is the best way to go, and MAN OF TAI CHI is a solid entry in the genre.
I felt very privileged to talk to both Keanu Reeves and Tiger Chen at Fantastic Fest. This was the night after the Fantastic Debates, and while Tim League won the popular vote, it's safe to say that Tiger definitely destroyed him in the ring. This wasn't a fake match by any stretch of the imagination: watch the video below and know that Tim had his ass handed to him like a plate of dumplings. But I admire Tim tremendously for getting into the ring in the first place:
MAN OF TAI CHI is available now on VOD, On Demand, and iTunes, and the only reason you shouldn't be ordering it right now is that you're waiting for the theatrical release on November 1st, which is wise. Reeves made a terrifically fun movie and I can't wait to see everyone react to it.
Keanu Reeves: Ah. Yeah, obviously the film is utilizing, starting with the title, a lot of iconographic ideas and elements of tai chi. Not just the martial art but the internal aspect of it, the meditation, so that wipe for me comes after the super fight, and something has changed, and the opening credits flash back in white. So I wanted to have this transition that went into the new beginning that takes place at the end part of the film. So I went digital. It's a very digital image. It's broad. It's a bold thing to do - well, not that bold. But cinematically it's fun storytelling.
Tiger Chen: As an actor, it feels so real while we're shooting the movie, just getting deeper and deeper, darker and darker. It feels so real. And I think I've experienced it before, you know, in my way of life, when I was training, when I was younger. There were lots of opportunities outside, but I tried to stay with my master and keep training, but there's so much stuff going on in this world.
Keanu Reeves: Woo-Ping really was our ground in the sense of the opportunity that the story has in that Tiger fights so many different styles and also goes on this journey where he's innocent to a darker place, almost a killer, where he loses himself while he's gaining himself. Woo-Ping was very collaborative and creative in creating the drama and choreography of how Tiger changes his styles and the styles that he fights against. His choreography is very clean. It's like master clean, every gesture, every move has a story to tell, and a context. Spatially, that was something that myself and the cinematographer (Elliot Davis)-
Keanu Reeves: Yeah, we had great operators too - Davy from Hong Kong who's done a lot of action, does great steadicam. And I was trying to do something which was a lot of subjective and objective, but I did want you to always know where you were in the room. And also not to have cutting but to put you in the right spot to see it, and not to artificially create drama like you said, shakycam, like, "It's moving so it's got energy!" I wanted the camera to be in a place that's capturing energy, and to move with the energy.
Keanu Reeves: YOU OWE ME A LIFE. (Everyone laughs)
Keanu Reeves: DOES IT MATTER? (Laughs) He's so to the point. You know, when people say, "I'm sorry, does it matter? Really?"
Keanu Reeves: Oh my God! (laughs) Out of synch, heighten it even more!
Keanu Reeves: We collaborated together on the story with Michael Cooney and executive producer Daxing Zhang for many years. Once we decided to go down into the underground fighting road, to go into the netherworld, we needed the netherworld gatekeeper, the dark master, and that was Donaka. And I just seemed to have a proclivity for Donaka's voice. I enjoyed him, I enjoyed his nefarious, Mephistophelian place.
Keanu Reeves: But even there, he's controlling a monitor, right? Isolating the figure, right, because for me he was so much about control, but control at a distance. But yeah, he's controlling the monitor, saying "Innocent," and what does that mean? He's someone that just wants to consume innocence. And I feel like we're surrounded by that a lot.
Keanu Reeves: Yeah, I would say like eight years ago I started to think about directing; I'd been acting for so long, and then I started to produce and develop scripts and so it just kinda started to happen. And my eye went to the cinema, and I've always been interested in cinema, and what I mean by that is camera placement, how you are telling a story. So as we collaborated on the script, it just became the story that I wanted to tell. I love kung fu movies. I feel like in their best forms - not the best forms, I like the opportunity they have to be almost how science fiction works, that they can abstract. That they can have social commentary with archetypes.
Keanu Reeves: And manipulated, and controlled, and how do you participate in it, yeah.
Keanu Reeves: Aw! Yes! Karen Mok is fantastic.Tiger Chen: She's so great.
Keanu Reeves: I want to make her, I think that she could be - "I want to make her," listen to me. "I wanna make her a star!" (laughs) She is a movie star. I agree. I think she wants to do action. I think she's great.
Tiger Chen: I think the MMA style. To absorb the MMA style I had to keep the tai chi form. You can't just fight in MMA, you have to base it in tai chi. So you have to fight like MMA and still stay in your tai chi style. That was pretty hard for me. Every time I'd start a fight, I'd think to myself, "You're a tai chi guy, remember!"
Keanu Reeves: That's in the way that he blocks, and the kind of punches he throws.
Keanu Reeves: He threw in some good blows.
Keanu Reeves: Yeah, for Tim. (Laughs)