Keanu Reeves returns to ‘Taiji’ up the place
by Annie S. Alejo
Keanu Reeves – yes, Neo from “The Matrix” series – seems to have fallen off the face of the earth, but while most of us may not be privy to the goings on in the life of this almost recluse of a celebrity, it seems the actor spent the past five years rather productively. It was a slow burn, but hey, he seems to have all the time in the world.
When Reeves surfaced at the Cannes Film Festival this year, reporters wasted no time detailing his “chunkier” figure and scruffy “baggy jeans, dirty trainers and grubby cap” look, as if it’s what really matters. A month later, at the Shanghai International Film Festival, he resurfaced with a slimmer physique, much to the delight of some press people who must think themselves the fitness police.
At any rate, Reeves falling back into the spotlight follows a bigger reason than him flaunting his apparent weight loss. He is busy promoting his new movie called “Man Of Tai Chi,” which is even a bigger milestone for him not just for playing the villain, but for the fact that it is also his directorial debut. An ambitious project, it is described as a trilingual film loosely based on the life of stuntman Tiger Chen Hu, whom Reeves met in 1997 and worked with in the “Matrix” trilogy.
“I had to do Kung Fu training with Tiger, and he would tell me stories about his Tai Chi master and his unusual training methods,” Reeves relates. “That led to a lot of deeper conversations about the Tao of life, Chi, martial arts, everything.”
He also boldly declares, “Without Tiger (Chen) there would be no ‘Man of Tai Chi.’”
The film is in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, and has been filmed in China and Hong Kong. It is especially interesting to note that Reeves actually has a Chinese great-grandparent. That aside, it seems the movie is meant to appeal to the huge Chinese market, which has embraced Reeves thanks to the “Matrix” trilogy,” as well as the Western market.
Talking about the central character in “Man Of Tai Chi,” Reeves notes, “Chen Lin-Hu is an everyman who has these extraordinary abilities and knowledge. He is the last student of Ling Kong Tai Chi… at the same time, he lives in Beijing and works as a delivery guy, so he’s leading this double life in a way, traditional in the martial arts but modern in his living. Now, his master is kind of telling him to start thinking about his power and who he is, and Tiger wants to externalize, to get recognition from the outside world, even though his master doesn’t think that using Tai Chi in public fighting can prove anything. So the story is about his journey through light and dark.”
The root of the Chinese word “taiji” roughly translates to “the supreme polarity” – that point where energy is both charged with equal parts movement and tranquility. Tai Chi Chuan, of course, is mostly known for its slow, meditative movements that emphasize balance, patience, and serenity. It may be surprising for most people to know, though, that Tai Chi has a long history as an effective martial art used in physical competition, as legends of fighters, warriors, and competitors who use its principles and skills would attest.
Although considered a “soft” martial art by many, apparently there is a “hard” side to Tai Chi that enables a fighter to strike with deadly quick accuracy, countering an opponent’s aggressiveness with a single, crippling blow. It is said that Tai Chi masters mostly tell their students to avoid the latter kind, as it would most likely result in mutual injury. As such, it is this struggle between the soft and hard, the light and dark part of the human soul that is at the core of “Man Of Tai Chi,” represented by Chen who here must decide between different paths: Using his knowledge as a pit fighter in black market matches, or seeking the spiritual mastery of the art.
As for playing the villainous character Donaka, a businessman who goes to extreme lengths to keep his secret underground fighting ring alive, Reeves says, “It’s not just about the fighting for him. He’s a Mephistophelian character who enjoys watching a person evolve and change through their fighting; he draws you to the dark side with that fascination, so he’s fun to play. Oftentimes the protagonist is on a journey of discovery, but the villain knows everything that is going on, and that has a certain freedom and pleasure to it. I haven’t played a lot of villains, but I’ve played a couple and I enjoy it.”
When asked what Reeves the director can say about Reeves the actor, he jokes, “Keanu is a true professional. Shows up on times, knows his lines. It took him a little while to figure out how he moved and stuff, it took a little more attention on the first day, but after that he did okay.”
When the tables are turned, Reeves the actor says of his director with equal amusement, “It’s his first time directing, but when I met him, it felt like I’d known him a long time, and had a really good relationship with him. I had the confidence he knew what he was doing.”
Levity aside, Reeves declares, “My hope and ambition was to create a modern morality play, cautionary tale, and story of positive actualization and consciousness in a classic, genre-specific story – the Kung Fu movie.”
Finishing off on a positive note, he then says, “This film is more than just entertainment. It is something I hope the audience will take into their lives in a positive way.”