Keanu Reeves' revolution: Matrix star to direct Chinese-backed kung fu film
by Charlotte Higgins
With heavy financial support from Beijing, trilingual Man of Tai Chi aims to pack big punch at eastern and western box offices
In 1999, Keanu Reeves made what many people regard as his most memorable film: the Wachowski brothers' (sic) The Matrix. Now, he is making his directorial debut – and his martial arts trainer from the Matrix films is to take the starring role in the trilingual Mandarin-, Cantonese- and English-language kung fu movie, which comes with heavy financial backing from the Chinese state.
Speaking at the Cannes film festival, the 48-year-old, who will also take a leading role in the film, called Man of Tai Chi, described his love of kung fu movies. Kindled by seeing Bruce Lee classics as a child, this was later developed by working on The Matrix with his trainer, Tiger Chen, he said. "Kung fu movies are beautiful," he said, "exotic, wonderful, empowering."
"It's like play," he said of the martial art. "There's something childlike about it. They are fake fights – and that's fun." He described how he and Chen bonded during their eight-hours-a-day training sessions for The Matrix.
"He was helping me with the kicks and punches, and then we started telling each other stories," he said. Chen would describe his own martial arts master, who would tempt birds to his hand with seed and then, according to Reeves' recollection of the story, "take their chi" (or life-force).
Reeves added: "We became friends and stayed in touch. He started acting, and we decided to do something together. Over five years, we developed a story."
That story, according to Reeves, is about "a simple delivery guy" in Beijing "who, on the other hand, is a martial-arts artist". Manipulated by Reeves' sinister character, he becomes involved in underground fighting. "As his power rises," said Reeves, "we see his loss of innocence and the journey of a man who must confront himself."
Clips from the film shown in Cannes suggest spectacular fight sequences and a sleekly modern production design of blankly mysterious, grey-painted rooms, instructions barked to the hero by unseen figures behind two-way mirrors and cars driven at speed by tough-faced enigmatic women along China's freeways.
The modern setting, according to producer Lenore Syvan, was important. She said: "There hasn't been a contemporary kung fu movie made for a long time; at the same time it is a homage to the genre."
The fight scenes are choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping, who also devised the martial arts sequences in The Matrix.
The film, which was completed 10 days ago, was shot over 105 days in Beijing and Hong Kong with a multilingual cast and crew. It is hoped the movie will be that rare beast: one that will be enjoyed by a mass western and Chinese audience. It opens in China in July, with international release expected in the autumn. Syvan said she anticipated a film that would "cross borders, oceans and continents".
Reeves has a following in China, not least because of the Matrix films; he is also fondly regarded because of his ancestry (one of his great-grandparents was Chinese, he has previously stated).
On directing in languages that he does not himself speak, Reeves said, "I had to listen. The process was very collaborative, and I had great support in terms of translators." Reeves himself, he said, has a "pretty good fight in this film", and he wanted the "fighting sequences to tell the story. I saw them as acting scenes."
The Toronto-born Reeves sprang to prominence in films such as the comedy Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Kathryn Bigelow's surfing thriller, Point Break. He recently produced and fronted Side By Side, a documentary investigating the death of photochemical film production and the rise of digital, interviewing directors such as the Wachowski brothers (sic), Steven Soderbergh, Martin Scorsese and Danny Boyle.