Man of Tai Chi (2013)
Director: Keanu Reeves
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Iko Uwais, Tiger Hu Chen, Karen Mok
Plot: A young martial artist's unparalleled Tai Chi skills land him in a highly lucrative underworld fight club.
(Guest Review by Ronnie Yeo)
"We want to see a pure-hearted man of Tai Chi become a killer."
Fatal Contact (2006) tells the story of martial artist Kong Ko going to fight in an underground tournament to earn some quick bucks and subsequently loses himself. Choy Lee Fut (2011) tells the story of another martial artist who fights to save his school from a big corporation which seeks to buy it over. Combine these two films and you get Man of Tai Chi, Keanu Reeves' directorial debut.
Yes, the plot is clichéd. But it is the combination that makes Man of Tai Chi stand out. Reeves successfully integrates the two into a well-paced film with an overarching moral/philosophical message: that the practice of martial arts is not just about fighting and winning, but also about character-building. Choosing to focus on ‘Tai Chi’, a style that is known to be slower and calmer helps to further the message as well.
While die-hard fans may feel skeptical about a Chinese martial arts film directed by a Canadian, one should be reminded that the film stars Tiger Chen, an established stuntman who has performed in box office hits like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and The Matrix Reloaded (2003). Also (and perhaps more importantly), Yuen Woo Ping directs the action for the film, marking the reunion of Yuen, Reeves and Tiger, who met in the Matrix trilogy.
Sure enough, the excellent action directing and choreography can get one's adrenaline going even though one is seated in a movie theater. Even so, the plot is never compromised for the action. In fact, the action, together with the subplot (which features Hong Kong stars Karen Mok and Simon Yam), complements the main plot without dominating it, resulting in a tightly plotted film which is entertaining and easy to follow.
The film's greatest weaknesses are probably its poor acting and flat characters. Tiger, in his first leading role, performs more like a stuntman than a leading actor, as he seems to maintain the same facial expression throughout the entire film. However, Reeves makes up for this by dedicating the first part of the film to showing Tiger's everyday life; his work, his family and his love interest.
The villain, played by Reeves himself, is ruthless and resourceful, making him appear formidable. However, he appears to suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), as he stalks every aspect of Tiger's life unnecessarily. As such, the vague reasons for his evil acts turn him into a one-dimensional villain without much character motivation.
Similarly, Tiger's master, played by Yu Hai, epitomizes the wise old man who attempts to drive Tiger to the right path. Nevertheless, such flat characterization helps the film further its message about the purpose of martial arts, as the angel and devil are spelt out clearly for the protagonist to choose from.
Reeves's directorial debut is one of the few good modern martial arts films today, although it is far from perfect. The film should be an entertaining one for the average audience, but a must-watch for fans of martial arts films due to its presentation of the relationship between martial arts and morals, as well as the impact of modernity on traditional Chinese martial arts.
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