Man of Tai Chi: Film Review

While weighed down by superfluous threads and the need to please censors, Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut remains a thoughtful, if overly ambitious, reflection of a martial arts hero’s struggle with his powers.

Keanu Reeves makes his directorial debut with a multi-lingual China-set fight film starring "Matrix" stuntman turned frontman, Tiger Chen.

HONG KONG -- The Chinese title of Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut is Tai Chi Xia. It’s a phrase seemingly fraught with contradictions: While the titular martial arts school has been marked for its emphasis on self-defense, slowness and harmony, the third Chinese character refers to fighters active in perpetuating justice through close combat -- a label applied in Chinese names for Western superheroes such as Batman (“Bianfu Xia” in Mandarin), Spider-man (“Zhizhu Xia”) or Iron Man (“Gangtie Xia”).

This parallel between Man of Tai Chi and these U.S. comics-turned-film-franchises might be more than just a marketing ploy. Opening in China last week and slated for a release in the U.S. by Radius at the end of 2013, the film adheres to the presently de rigueur interest in tackling the inner schisms of a powerful protagonist struggling with how he is to utilize (and capitalize on) his powers, a psychological conflict heightened by the circumstances the film’s hero has to engage with in 21st-century, cosmopolitan China -- a country thriving on speed, with its go-getters defining the country’s moral parameters through their capitalistic drive.

PHOTOS: China Box Office: 10 Highest-Grossing Movies of All Time

With its toned-down, near-claustrophobic depiction of its leading character’s moral passage through bone-crunching blows, Man of Tai Chi -- a project heralded by its major backer, the state-owned China Film Group, as a prime exemplar of a foreign star coming to the country and making an authentic “Chinese” film -- actually runs against the upbeat, celebratory ethos which has ruled the roost in Chinese cinemas for the past few months.

Adding to its lack of high-octane blockbuster production values and an established top-billed star -- Reeves is more a supporting presence on screen as the villain -- its box office traction in China has stalled, and chances for the film to attain mainstream international success are limited. But stuntman-turned-star Tiger Chen’s scintillating execution of Yuen Woo-ping’s action choreography should generate interest among martial arts aficionados around the world hankering for a film filled with po-faced, skull-cracking fights underlined by philosophical musings about the rationale of violence and its discontents.

Those who expect great things from the reunion of this Matrix triumvirate -- Reeves befriended both Yuen and Chen for the Wachowskis film series -- will not be disappointed by the action on offer; and it’s a very diverse plate, too, representing the different “paths” a martial artist could walk down. Ranging from the fluid physical moves that Reeves and Yuen adapted from Tai Chi, to the hair-raising, bare-knuckle close encounters the film’s protagonist endures with fighters from around the world -- including an unfortunately short sequence from Indonesian actor Iko Uwais of The Raid fame – the fights are ceaseless, relentless and nearly always brutal: Imagine a modern-day take on Game of Death, in which mirrored rooms and characterless bunkers replace the Korean pagoda, and one gets close to describing the ambience in which the violence unfolds.

PHOTOS: Senior Superheroes: 19 Action Stars Kicking Butt Past 50

The central question being posed here is what a martial arts expert is fighting for -- and how those from a newer Chinese generation should look at what they do, amid the clash and clamor engulfing their earthly existence. It’s this complexity that makes Chen’s character -- a version of himself, Chen Linhu, with his given name means “tiger in the woods” -- interesting: When not practicing his Tai Chi moves with his aged master (Yu Hai) in a far-flung, rundown temple, Linhu lives in a cramped flat in a Beijing tenement block, braves the Chinese capital’s horrid traffic jams as a delivery man, and tries to improve his English by listening to the radio.

It’s a life about which he has had no qualms. He’s shown himself to be more a man of the world, as he admits to his master of his discomfort in holding his energy back with his Tai Chi routines (his school, invented by Reeves and his team, is called Ling Kong, or “emptying your spirit”). He later tells a TV reporter after a martial arts competition that his aspiration is to show the world how Tai Chi “is not just for exercise."

As Linhu struggles to contain the vigorous beast within himself, the opportunity to get out of his torn-between-two-worlds conundrum arrives in the form of a job offer from self-proclaimed multinational security services operator Donaka Mak (Reeves). Whizzed to Hong Kong by limousine and then private jet, Linhu discovers he is actually being recruited to take part in illegal fights in the city with big financial rewards. Initially rejecting this break, Linhu soon relents to what seems to be a development beyond his control, as he suddenly needs some quick cash to renovate and save his master’s decrepit temple from the State’s urban planners and their bulldozers.

But what Linhu has considered a short-term vocation slowly lets out the dark side of his psyche. Quietly liberated from the no-holds-barred nature of the clandestine contests he participates in at night, his personality by day begins to change, as he talks back to his boss at work, spends his now-inflated earnings on (product placement alert!) posh cars and electric appliances for his family, and -- perhaps most devastatingly -- begins “letting the beast out” (as Donaka urges him to do) in televised public martial arts showcases.

PHOTOS: Cut, Censored, Changed: 10 Hollywood Films Tweaked for International Release

This is perhaps what Reeves, through his on-screen alter-ego Donaka, means when he describes what he’s offering with Man of Tai Chi: a chronicle of how “a person evolves and changes” when placed in drastic life scenarios. Indeed, for all the breathtaking acrobatics shown in the fighting sequences, the film is actually more perceptive when examining, up close, Linhu’s dilemmas in choosing between sticking to his principles and letting his instincts run amok. While Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker and Tony Stark might have, at one point or another, stared at their superhero suits and reflected on the burden they embodied, Linhu’s struggle is the other way round: His decision to break from his meek past is symbolized by his final glance at the gaudy windbreaker he has to wear as a uniform for his deliveryman job.

Rather than being simplistic, Reeves could be charged for being too ambitious in his attempt to add too many layers to his long-gestated directorial debut. Taking a cue out of the paranoia-infused universe of The Matrix, the first-time director attempts to provide a Big Brother/The Truman Show sheen to Linhu’s story by having Donaka’s team produce a running 24-hour broadcast of his new charge’s life as a streaming online show; this critique of cyberspace is undercooked and only exposes how much Reeves and his team are left wanting in their grasp of arguments against Internet technology, mediated culture and simulacra.

And needing to portray the law as eventually gaining an upper hand over the baddies -- this is a state-sanctioned mainland Chinese production, after all -- the narrative is supplemented by a group of Hong Kong detectives (led by a sergeant played by Karen Mok) trying to close down Donaka’s fight-club operations. Both threads turn out to be superfluous to the proceedings and only serve to distract rather than enhance the main narrative.

The need to appease censors with constructive, politically correct denouements notwithstanding, Reeves has delivered a film that rejects Orientalist cliches; in fact, Man of Tai Chi -- penned by Irish screenwriter Michael Cooney -- could even be read as a mockery of occidental fascination with Chinese kung fu, with Donaka being the embodiment of the sinister Western svengalis trying to cash in on exotic entertainment featuring a culturally different protagonist. Reeves himself has inoculated himself from this criticism by refusing to give an excessively mystical spin to Tai Chi.

Meanwhile, the setting of Linhu’s every-man, everyday routines as a working-class individual in an ordinary modern metropolis is also crucial: Rather than taking place in a caricatured land of kung fu warriors dressed in dragon-emblazoned attire -- something Donaka would make Linhu wear in his fights -- Man of Tai Chi, at the end of the day, offers a look at the universal struggle faced by a David in the land of Goliaths.

The film is clearly no simple vanity project for Reeves. While weighed down by digressions and contraptions, Man of Tai Chi is an adequate and ambitious effort from a first-time director who could have enhanced his on-screen philosophical arguments with a bit more depth and done with a touch less of the admittedly riveting man-to-man melee.

Production: China Film Group, Wanda Media, Village Roadshow Pictures Asia, Universal Pictures, Company Films
Cast: Tiger Chen, Keanu Reeves, Karen Mok, Yu Hai, Simon Yam, Ye Qing
Director: Keanu Reeves
Action director: Yuen Woo-ping
Screenwriter: Michael Cooney
Producers: Lemore Syvan, Daxing Zhang
Executive Producers: Han Sanping, Zhao Fang, Ellen Eliasoph
Director of photography: Elliot Davis
Production designer: Yohei Taneda
Music: Chan Kwong-wing
Costume designer: Joseph Porro
Art directors: Fu Yingzhang, Miyuki Kitagawa
Editor: Derek Hui
In English, Mandarin and Cantonese

Running time 105 minutes