When directors appear in their own movies, it's usually either a coy cameo or self-indulgent hero antics. Not Keanu Reeves. In his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, Reeves portrays occidental force of malice Donaka Mark, who shows a flaming fury against the story's naive hero, superstar stuntman and fight choreographer Tiger Hu Chen. "I hope you enjoyed the black miserableness," laughed Reeves. "It's fun to play a bad guy, because they have such passion. It's so direct. It's 'I want, I need, I must have.'"
Set in the hazy netherworld between mainland China and semiautonomous Hong Kong, the film charts Chen's struggle between Tai Chi's meditative philosophical underpinnings and his desire to prove its strength as a fighting style. Reeves walked his own tightrope, telling a story immersed in the traditions of the region but still accessible to a Western audience. "Culturally, I want to be authentic to the Chinese, to Beijing, and to Hong Kong," said Reeves. "Cinematically, I was hoping that it didn't have a country of origin. I was looking for the cinema of the story."
Reeves first befriended Chen on the set of the Matrix series, and Man of Tai Chi reunites them with the franchise's fight choreographer – Fantastic Fest lifetime achievement award winner Yuen Woo-ping. For Reeves, working with Yuen was "like watching Picasso draw. Every gesture has intention." When shooting the fight sequences, he often deferred to the master. "I would say, OK, Woo-ping, where would you put the camera, and he'd say 'here,' and I'd say 'OK.'" Still, as director, he knew when to say no, like during key sequences between Chen and his master, played by veteran martial artist Yu Hai. A wuxia cinema legend, he has slowed from the mighty days of 1982's Shaolin Temple. Undeterred, Reeves said, "I wanted to put Yu Hai in there as much as possible, so I did these very short pieces. I know that Woo-ping was like, 'It's not going to work,' but then when he saw the assembly of the fight, he said, 'Oh, it worked.' I think that's part of why he said yes. I think he was interested in what I would do."
The actor's decision to step behind the camera was a simple one: "I come from a passion and a respect for the kung fu genre, and I wanted to do something modern with it," he said. There are flashes of a martial arts classic here: Bruce Lee's Game of Death. In the original version, unfinished due to its star's death, Lee showed the superiority of his fighting style over five different opponents from different schools. In Man of Tai Chi, Chen travels through two separate tournaments: formal exhibitions for the honor of the form, and pure fights in a sealed room for cash. "We really wanted to show the variety of styles," Reeves explained. "So [mixed martial arts] is definitely very popular, so for us it would be interesting to have a Tai Chi versus MMA fight. With all these different sequences, they would be fun and interesting and new." He said, "Each fight is different and makes the distinction of how [Chen's] changing, and our involvement more immersive."
Even for viewers who couldn't tell pencak silat from muay thai, Reeves believes in the power of his story. For him, the film comes down to "the master saying that you need to slow down and be thoughtful and meditate, and the student who is intoxicated with his strength and his power and his ambition. I hope that people can take that in."
Man of Tai Chi screens Saturday, Sept. 21, 6pm, and Wednesday, Sept. 25, 5:15pm.
Copyright © 2016 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.