I don’t remember the last time I saw Keanu Reeves in an action film. Thinking back, it must have been 15 years ago when he played the mighty Neo in Wachowski’s Matrix Trilogy. Since than he appeared in low budget and less popular films such as Henry’s Crime, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Generation Um… and recently, in a well known, documentary entitled Side by Side, in which he debates the future of digital and film cameras.
In 2008 Reeves decided to take on a task of becoming a first-time director. It took him 5 years to develop: Man of Tai Chi. After rewriting the script, investing approximately $25 million of his own money and spending 9 months in China, Reeves managed to complete his first feature film, which premiered at the Beijing Film Festival in 2013. Man of Tai Chi is an American-Chinese production which takes us on a spiritual journey of a young man, Tiger Hu Chen (the character and actor share the same name), whose life is partially dictated by an ancient physical exercise called Tai Chi. The protagonist resides in a little obscured flat in Beijing and lives the ordinary life of a delivery man. In his spare time he tries to improve his English by listening to the radio and practices his Tai Chi with his Master in an old and falling apart temple. While performing Tai Chi, Chen is pressurized by his Master (Yu Hai) to hold his energy back which requires him to be more spiritual than physical with the exercise. Days pass by and Chen’s daily routine starts to affect him. He decides to participate in a Martial Arts tournament at which he proves that Tai Chi is not only an exercise of the mind and soul but it’s also Martial Arts which is filled with great power and energy.
While fighting at the tournament, Chen is observed by a man, whose connection would later lead to the evildoer, Donaka Mak (Keanu Reeves), a wealthy owner of a security company and operator of a lavish underground fight club. Mak decides that Chen should be the next contender for his upcoming contest and offers Chen a huge amount of money for taking part in a few fights. Chen’s honour initially pushes him to reject the financial reward until he learns that the temple he practices in is under threat of demolition. He eventually agrees to Mak’s offer and fights for him. Paralleling this story of Tiger Hu is Karen Mok’s police officer, Sam Jingshi, leading an off book inquiry into Donaka’s illegal activities. As Chen moves up the ranks, the ‘competition’ becomes more difficult and dangerous. It gets to the point where Chen is forced to fight for his life.
Reeves’ attempt as a first-time director will not go unnoticed among Martial Arts fans. Chen’s character is likeable and interesting, however, the acting is questionable. Reeves, on the other hand, provides a capable antagonist. Man of Tai Chi is filled with good action and fight scenes. Most of the fights are handled with harsh realism, apart from a single scene that include dreadful wire- work. The cinematography disappoints a lot, Elliot Davis didn’t take advantage of Beijing’s beauty at all, the picture is dull and unwelcoming. The music, however, was great. Chan Kwong- Wing spoils the audience with a beautiful, memorable and traditional Chinese tune. To sum up, the film was bearable to watch, it’s great fun for Martial Arts lovers but not so great for cinema goers.
Written by Maggie Gogler