Keanu Reeves' Breeze and Mystery
by Li Dongran
(Translated from Chinese by Anakin McFly)
When I saw Reeves, it was already noon; having done uninterrupted interviews since morning had made him tired. He requested a break to go out for a smoke, and the workers around him joked: "Don't ask him questions about his one-eighth Chinese heritage. He's answered that over a hundred times and if you ask him again he'll collapse. Or about Chinese food. We're tired of hearing about it."
"That's right, I come here quite often. Sometimes for my film, and sometimes to see friends." This is how Keanu opened our interview.
A thick black beard covered a large part of his face, and his similarly dark hair had a casual, messy look that suggested it had only been combed through twice with his fingers. Reeves said, apart from the few times he's been filming (it's possible that this is referring to paparazzi. - Ani), being a star didn't bother him and he found freedom and comfort with his peripatetic lifestyle. "Ultimately, I feel that if I can still be myself, that's what's most important. Isn't it?"
The fact is, the purpose of Keanu Reeves' current visit to Beijing is very clear: Man of Tai Chi, the Chinese martial arts film that he directed, will soon be showing on screens throughout China and the US. It is also the first film he's ever directed. "The time it took was a bit long, give or take 7 years, with the script undergoing revisions over five years. To tell a story, you first need to be clear on what you want to express, and then you have to get a suitable writer to write that down, and then you learn a few things from that process, and know from which direction to continue writing in, or which parts you need to re-examine, until you end up with a draft. After that you need to revise the draft, and that is a never-ending process. Now I realise that creating stories isn't as simple as it looks on the surface, but in order to make everything flow nicely, you need to put in twice as much effort behind the scenes."
Reeves said that the Man of Tai Chi script was 134 pages long, and would have resulted in a 5 hour movie. Therefore, some hard sacrifices had to be made to get the script down to 90 pages. Reeves said that it actually made the script a lot tighter. "For instance I had to learn how to focus, and make all the narrative strands focus on the two masters: the Master of Light symbolised meditation, thinking thrice before acting, letting yourself develop a clear idea of the kind of person you want to be; whereas the Master of Darkness tells you to be daring and forward, to find pleasure in the release of your passion, to enjoy being yourself. It was not difficult to get a sense of conflict from that. But when it came to knowing how each master would speak, how he would treat his student... going deep into those actual details of the plot was really tricky for me. When it comes to both kungfu and kungfu masters, I'm a foreigner. I know that apart from just using mind and body, one must also unite the wisdom of people around you in order to cope with all these problems."
Reeves was blunt about how it was the action that most attracted him to the project: "In good martial arts films, the fight choreography looks really beautiful on the screen and looks like a dance to me! And at the same time, those martial arts films have a very beautiful, very profound heart to them. I love martial arts films."
Keanu Reeves himself rose to fame through martial arts and action. Speed, the low-budget action movie he starred in, earned US$121 million at the box office and became the first huge success of his career. The Matrix trilogy made extensive use of Chinese martial arts and traditional American action movie gunfights, letting its subversive cyberpunk science-fiction plot complement its action scenes to create an insurmountable classic.
"It's a pity I never learnt actual Chinese kungfu, and only worked towards accumulating a richer understanding of kungfu and kungfu movies. But those two things are different. For example if I'm focusing on the application of kungfu (??), on the performance front I will train hard, but I never spent time pursuing actual Chinese kungfu. When I was really young I learnt a bit of it, but unfortunately I stopped soon after. But since then I've since learnt that behind real martial arts is philosophy, and it's led me to a deep respect of actual kungfu."
Perhaps it's because of this that in Man of Tai Chi, Reeves gave the male leading role of taichi master to Tiger Chen Hu, someone who has 30 years of experience in kungfu movies, while he himself took on the role of the villain who operates a series of underground fighting games. Reeves was interested in how Chen Hu's training and classes since childhood had given him a solid foundation in martial arts. Chen Hu majored in taichi, but in the movie, be it with karate, [various other martial arts whose translations I'm uncertain off. - Ani], broadsword or cudgel, he is similarly adept. He had an earlier career in Hollywood, working as stunt doubles for Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Jet Li, Cheng Pei Pei and Stephen Chow. "He knows martial arts, and he knows movies."
Keanu Reeves mentioned Chen Hu, describing the two of them as brothers. "We met in 1997 because of The Matrix, and have had about ten years of friendship between us. His upcoming starring role is his best ever; furthermore, he's my brother. I feel that martial arts is a very emotional kind of art, and is also about what it means to be a person. Love and righteousness form the most beautiful manifestation of the martial arts. Chen Hu is my respected teacher, and I always learn dilligently from him.
As for his own move behind the camera, Reeves has never denied those rumours of being a 'has-been' or in a 'crisis'. "Oh, mid-life crisis? Maybe, but I have also always wanted to create, because it allows me to have that progression in my artistic career."
Among the creations Reeves was referring to, 2012's Side by Side - a documentary which he produced on the future of film - can't be left out. It was one of the most popular documentaries of the year. Reeves said that the documentary originated in 2006, and he started getting more and more puzzled about how digital technology was changing his work; the possibility of film being discontinued in the future made him feel sad as a filmmaker, on the one hand, but on the other hand it made him even more eager to record this revolution that was happening in the industry. Incredibly, Hollywood leaders including David Lynch, George Lucas, James Cameron, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh all agreed to let Reeves interview them, sharing their thoughts and feelings on this moment in film. From the younger generation, Lena Dunham, director and writer of the hit TV series 'Girls', also joined Reeves. Their topics of conversation extended from screen images to the everyday phenomenon of babies watching Nickleodeon cartoons on the iPad. "At first I was very in love with film, but thinking that at this stage, hundreds of years of film techniques are being gradually replaced by new technology, and I was willing to investigate that. But afterwards I discovered that what I was concerned about wasn't digital technology itself, or how it had revolutionised the whole film industry, but how it had changed the way we tell stories. I wanted to record everything that was happening at this moment, because it's something I find necessary: storytelling's traditions and its future, which is a huge thing for every person."
According to The New York Times, The New Yorker and other mainstream media reviews, the documentary Side By Side does not lose out to any aggressive drama. Other than addressing the revolution of human visual technology and storytelling, people also said that Reeves' career transformation was off to a beautiful start. Most of the time, such a journey from the front of the camera to behind it is, for most Hollywood superstars, an important tactic to maintain their influence in the industry, and it is unusual that very few people viewed Keanu Reeves' career shift in this way, in his case attributing more meaning to his whims.
To this end, people like to provide some examples: Reeves loves Shakespeare's plays and dreamed of one day playing his characters; however, when he could not find such opportunities to perform in the US, he went all the way to Canada to star in a stage production of 'The Merchant of Venice' (sic: it was Hamlet. - Ani.) He also put his career on hold for over a year to perform with his band, Dogstar, even though it was just a small, unknown third-rate band. Even in Hollywood, he is known for his pickiness: early on in 1986 he turned down the lead role of Taylor in the Oliver Stone classic, Platoon, because he did not like the amount of violence in the script; he also refused to make the sequel to Speed, the movie which made him famous.
Instead, it was often the unprofessionally-filmed, energy-lacking independent small films that found it easy to get hold of Reeves' superstardom: as Johnny Mnemonic's bland computer guy, Feeling Minnesota's unknown but struggling writer, The Devil's Advocate's lawyer tangled painfully in moral quandary, and so on. "Money is not the issue for me. I haven't worked for the money in a long time, because I could live for a good many centuries on what I've already made."
Reeves of course puts a good amount of time towards letting himself enjoy life, such as with his band. He sounded regretful as he told us how he often missed the wild fun of playing on stage. Or motorcycles: at any moment he could easily list out his collection - a Harley 750, Suzuki 1100, his Gus, which he nicknamed 'GuzziMoto', and especially his beloved 1974 Norton 850. "This is my most beautiful one," he said.
Preserving his star image is indeed never as important to him as his pursuit of fun. Reeves is keen on midnight bike rides, for which he has often ended up in hospital, leading him sometimes to start the first day on a new film wearing a neck guard or holding crutches when he meets the director. The most serious car accident he was in occurred in 1988, fracturing a few ribs and leaving him with permanent scars on his stomach. Reeves said, when the paramedics lifted him up onto the stretcher but then dropped him, "I wanted to laugh, but I couldn't breathe."
Keanu Reeves would also often write down this kind of sentence: "I draw a hot sorrow bath / in my despair room / with a misery candle burning." Later on, these deeply sorrowful sentences became an illustrated booklet, which Reeves named 'Ode to Happiness'.
"This is poetry, bringing opposites together to make them more complex and richer. Of course, this is also humorous poetry. It expresses a kind of pursuit, the sad sentences paying homage to that pursuit. For me, writing is often a spontaneous occurrence. I was actually very young when I first started writing things. Sometimes I would write a lot, at other times I would forget. I like things with a lot of conflict and discord, like very sad sentences named an ode to happiness. I present it as a children's book for adults. If you're willing to find something true from the book, then at the end you'll definitely find it a reason to smile," Reeves said.