Talk to Keanu Reeves and Tiger Hu Chen about their new film Man of Tai Chi? Whoa!
Joking aside, it was a rare chance and one for which I was grateful. Reeves is a fascinating figure who has crafted a solid career for himself across a wide range of story types. My Own Private Idaho, The Devil's Advocate, Point Break, and The Matrix franchise couldn't be more different from one another. Yet Reeves has brought all those characters to life, and subverted the movie star paradigm he's often been saddled with by underplaying. Remember when everybody thought he'd be stuck making Bill and Ted sequels for the rest of his life?
Man of Tai Chi gives him a chance to mug villainous and he has some genuinely scary moments onscreen. This is no vanity project for Reeves, who also makes his directorial debut here. This is a very fun collaboration between two friends that has surprising energy, humor and heart.
Tiger Hu Chen first met Reeves as a stunt man on The Matrix films. But his filmography, though short, also lists Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Charlie's Angels for stunt work. In Man of Tai Chi he handles the lead role and the often stellar fight sequences with equal degrees of grace.
This was a too, too short conversation. I mean really short, but, again, I was grateful for the opportunity to have it.
You've worked across a wide range of genres, but did you worry that purists might not accept a martial arts film from THE MATRIX guy?
Keanu Reeves: 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. It deals with power and control, tradition and modernity, and the seductions of the modern world, the innocent going down the path of losing himself.
Martial arts films can often sag when the characters aren't fighting each other. What made you want to tell this particular story aside from the opportunity to stage and film those fight sequences?
I was inspired by a couple of things. First, Tiger. He's a very modern guy. He left Chengdu, he went to Beijing and became a stunt man. Then he went to the States. He has ambition. But there's also a sense of tradition about him. He has a traditional background. He has a master, a relationship with his parents.
I don't mean to speak of you as if you weren't there. [We all laugh]
I found that the Tai Chi lends itself to drama because it has all these apparent contradictions. Things transforming, light and darkness, winning through losing, losing through winning.
It all builds up to that fundamentally spiritual moment where the hands come out and the Chi is released. That scene in films that utilize Tai Chi can't feel false. You have to sell it.
That transformative moment is the key thing in Kung Fu cinema in general. Bruce Lee has it in Enter The Dragon when he crushes the guy's chest and he's screaming, and he has the flashback to his sister and the blade of glass. I hope that the Ling Kong palm or the moments when we see Tiger losing sight of his goodness touch on that emotional core.
Tiger, this is a big year for martial arts film in some ways, notably with THE GRANDMASTER adding to that sort of mythic core of movies about Ip Man. Here you are working with Keanu, who is famous, in his words, for knowing "movie kung fu." [everyone laughs]
But MAN OF TAI CHI is a foreign-language release here in the US. People aren't expecting that when they see Keanu's name on the poster, especially since he's directing. It begs a question. He must have leaned on you a lot during production for achieving authenticity, etc. Did you feel like you were bringing in an outsider to this world?
Not at all. We had a shared relationship. The movie itself has a very East and West meet sort of story and we worked together for a long time developing it. We worked on this together in a way that brought us together rather than one that highlighted our differences.