Keanu Reeves: Tai Chi master
by Jocelyn Lee
For Hollywood’s bona fide box-office star Keanu Reeves, being able to direct and act in martial arts movie Man Of Tai Chi is a childhood fantasy come true.
The 48-year-old Canadian actor’s directorial debut, which opens here on July 11, sees him playing villain Donaka, a powerful businessman who runs a secret underground fighting ring for wealthy patrons, where opponents fight each other to the death.
Chinese stuntman-turned-actor Tiger Chen plays the young taiji master who crosses over to the dark side and joins the ring, lured by easy money.
Rounding up the cast is Hong Kong actress Karen Mok as a tough policewoman determined to hunt down Donaka, and newbie Chinese starlet Ye Qing as Chen’s good friend.
The notoriously laconic Reeves got excited when chatting with FiRST during our one-on-one interview at Hyatt on The Bund about Man Of Tai Chi.
He was in China to attend the Shanghai International Film Festival last weekend to promote his labour of love, which is in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.
Clad in a smart all-black ensemble of blazer and trousers, the handsome heart-throb was chirpy and friendly, and smiled when asked about his passion for gongfu movies.
He said: “When I grew up in Toronto (in Canada), I watched gongfu movies on this one (television) station. Gongfu movies are almost like fantasy movies and the people seem to have special powers. There was independence, power, identification and a clear idea of good and bad.”
Sitting up straight on the couch, he suddenly demonstrated different martial arts moves to me, saying: “There was the crane style, the snake style... They were so exotic and other-worldly.”
The first-time film-maker shot Man Of Tai Chi over 100 days in China and Hong Kong, supervising a largely international crew who did not speak English.
The movie reportedly has a production budget of 200 million yuan (S$40 million).
For Reeves, making any movie is a challenge, and finding the right people to work with was the most important.
He said he felt lucky to get on board legendary fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping (The Matrix) and experienced producer Lemore Syvan, whose portfolio includes Henry’s Crime (2010) and The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee (2009), both of which Reeves starred in.
He said: “You have to find the people who fit your work, your job and your story, and that’s the process you go through when you are making a movie.”
Asked to rate his directorial skills, he paused and pondered before answering: “It’s not really for me to say. I’ve watched the film a few times and I like it very much.”
Reeves – a long-time devotee of taiji – has an epic fight scene with Chen in the movie.
He said: “We had a lot of training before filming. So by the time we got to that scene, we had brushed up on the choreography after work or during weekends.”
Reeves made his acting debut in the 80s and caught the world’s attention when he acted as a rookie FBI agent in Point Break (1991) and Speed (1994).
He reached the peak of his career courtesy of The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003).
Yet, if given the chance to start over again, Reeves does not want to stick mainly to the action genre.
He said: “Yeah, I’ve had some success with action movies, but I feel like I had done well in non-action films as well, such as Thumbsucker, My Own Private Idaho and Henry’s Crime.”
He hopes Man Of Tai Chi will propel him to a new wave of superstardom “because what that means to me is opportunity”.
“That would mean I get to tell another story, and people are interested in what I do.
“I am thinking of making another movie or documentary, but I am not restricted by any genres. I don’t go like, I am going to make a musical, but speaking of that, yes, I would like to make a musical someday.”
Even though The Matrix is his most iconic movie, Reeves does not feel it was the proudest moment of his two-decade career.
He laughed heartily while reflecting: “For me, it’s like I can’t be proud of being in that.
“I love them and I gave them (directors the Wachowski brothers) everything I humanly could for those films. As an actor, I can only think: ‘These are good movies, and I am happy to be part of them’.”
Yet, without The Matrix movies, Reeves would not have got to know Chen, who was part of the stunt team in the seminal sci-fi flick.
The pair maintained their friendship over the years, which led Reeves to come up with the idea of making a taiji movie. He had heard about Chen’s training methods.
On his decision to cast the relatively unknown Chen as his leading man, Reeves said: “Of course he is not a movie star, so we can’t judge him by that standard. All I can hope is that the film will be an ambassador for him.”
He continued to lavish praise, saying: “As a martial artist, he is exceptional, his fighting is great. As an actor, he is charming and very believable. I sympathise with his role. I am a fan of his.”