Lao Li loves kungfu, filmed a movie because of Chen Hu
by Wang Jiang Yue
(Translated from Chinese by Anakin McFly)
It has been many years since Keanu Reeves last starred in a big movie, and this time he appears in front of a Chinese audience, albeit in a different role - director. Recently, his directorial debut Man of Tai Chi was released, piquing the curiosity of the masses; however, the box-office takings were less than ideal, with the film grossing only $5 million on its opening day. Some speculate that one reason for the box-office failure is that Keanu's scenes in the movie are too few. He cedes the stage to new talent, giving the spotlight to his good friend Chen Hu.
Because of his commitment to Chen Hu and the latter's encouragement of him in making this movie, Keanu's passion for the project is clearly evident. As one of Hollywood's stars, Reeves maverick image is a perpetual anomaly. This has also allowed him to have a bit of a ranger's temperament, caring little for wealth, keeping his promises, and sticking to his principles. I interviewed Keanu Reeves prior to the movie's release, and at that time asked him what kind of expectations he had for its box-office. He said: "I hope people will like this movie, and come out from the theatre with some new ideas. These are the only hopes I have for Man of Tai Chi. I have no specific wishes about its box-office."
If you recall the year 2011, people on Weibo at that time were talking about encountering Keanu Reeves outside Sanlitun, and posting photos of their meetings. The Keanu Reeves in the photo had a beard, and looked very 'Matrix'.
At the time, I thought that he was just another famous tourist visiting China.
But after that, there were also people reporting encounters in Beijing Nanluoguxiang, the worker's restaurant San Yang Cai and Chengdu. I thought, this man isn't done having fun in China. But then the newspapers reported that he was filiming his directorial debut in China, a movie called Man of Tai Chi, and I realised that, for this movie, he's been hanging around in China for about a year's time. In that period, he fell in love with white wine and Szechuan, had the ability to eat spicy food, left with Chen Hu to visit his friends and family in Chengdu, and learnt how to play mahjong.
He also gained a nickname: 'Lao Li'.
Lao Li currently has a lot of interest in Chinese culture, such as its paintings, literature and art, and has an understanding of Confucianism and Taoism.
When it was time for the interview, shaking hands and greeting each other, I also called him Lao Li. "Lao li, nice to meet you!" He laughed, and quipped: "I'm a very old Li!" (Note: 'lao' means 'old' in Chinese. - Ani)
Lao Li likes visiting Nanluoguxiang, because that place has elements of both the old and the new, which he thinks is very cool but which also makes him a little sad. "To gain something is to lose something, and to keep something you need to give something up... this is a contradiction that keeps occuring in China, and in the whole world, in fact."
The Lao Li who was saying this also displayed the 'new and old' in himself. Externally, he had a beard and his body was getting a little fat, in contrast to the Matrix's proud lone saviour of 15 years ago. But what hadn't changed was the heroic spirit in his brow, and the touch of firmness in his mouth. (Note: this isn't translating well. In English a similar line would probably describe the heroic spark in his eyes and the firmness of his jaw. But the specific body parts mentioned in Chinese are 'brow/forehead' and 'mouth'. I am okay with Keanu having a heroic forehead. - Ani)
This kind of contradiction also accompanied Keanu as he grew up. The Keanu who was born in 1964 was, ten years ago, one of the hottest stars in Hollywood, so if you'd talked about 'getting it', it would have naturally been about his fame. But the concept of 'giving up' also constantly followed him around. His beloved younger sister contracted leukemia, and through that time, Keanu was always by her side, paying her huge medical bills; in 1993, his My Own Private Idaho co-star River Phoenix died of a drug overdose; during The Matrix, he and his girlfriend had a stillborn child, and his girlfriend then died in a car accident. In talking about these losses, Keanu Reeves gave a slight pause, and then raised his head, and in a very calm tone said, "Although those losses were very frightening, to me it's about the love and memories. They let me treasure the people who are gone, and all the more cherish the ones I still have with me."
Keanu's childhood was a constant migration between different countries. Then his parents divorced, he dropped out of high school, and at 17 years old his affinity for acting might have seemed accidental, but also seems to have been a matter of destiny. He admitted that these experiences made him feel like a gypsy: adaptable, but also with the desire to conquer. So he dared to make refusals. He said he wouldn't do movies for the money. Because acting in Speed made him famous, people sought him out to do Speed 2, but he wasn't satisfied with the script, and although he met the director, he refused to do the movie. He loved music, and so turned down a 50 million paycheck (USD$11 million at that time - Ani), and brought his band to perform for eight months on a world tour. In 1997, in order to get Al Pacino to join The Devil's Advocate, he gave up USD$1 million of his own paycheck so they could afford him.
The media once described Keanu Reeves as such: Other than when he's filming, he doesn't care about his appearance, wearing shoes full of holes, riding the subway, and when he's hungry he goes to a park, spreads newspapers atop the the flowerbeds, and eats a sandwich, looking scruffy like a tramp.
Yet despite this side of him, his fame over the years has been inseparable from an image of him as 'handsome' and 'cool'. In 1995, 'People' magazine ranked him among the 50 most beautiful people in the world. When I bring this up, he shakes his head and says with a laugh that that was a long time ago.
These past few years, he's protected his privacy very well. I asked if he cares about what other people think of him. He nods: "Of course, everyone wants recognition, and I only hope I give people a good impression." When I ask him to evaluate himself, he first gives me a funny look, then says, as he thinks: "easygoing... has a good sense of humour... artsy..."
After the interview, I saw Chen Hu, and asked him to evaluate Keanu Reeves from the point of view of a friend. He said: he ignores his external appearance but focuses on what's in his heart;
even though he's really famous, he drifts away out of the system; wealth and fame mean nothing to him.
To speak of how they originally met, we have to trace events back to 1997. Due to filming The Matrix, martial arts instructor Chen Hu met Keanu Reeves, and the two of them also worked together on the two later Matrix sequels. Today, the two are good friends, more like good brothers. But I was still curious: how does a martial artist and Hollywood star become good friends just because of one movie?
Hearing my surprise, Chen Hu said, "You're saying that there's a huge disparity in our identities! In reality, I think that what's important is that we have compatible personalities!" Lao Li said, "It's fate!" In his eyes, Chen Hu is a very honest, traditional Chinese man.
"So we had some ideas of working together." Lao Li said that the movie Man of Tai Chi emerged from the commitment he had to Chen Hu. "This movie was brewing for five years, and the story has Chen Hu playing a courier who under the influence of his demons gets lured deep into the abyss of evil; then right at the end he has an epiphany, and it becomes a 'tai chi master' course."
Using a different understanding of 'Man' than Hollywood's Spiderman and Batman, Lao Li has his own definition of this 'Man'. He says, a hero has two sides: the side that's a hero, and the side that's in the world. They must hide their real selves in order to become a hero. They also have to overcome their inner demons and achieve self-realisation. So the 'Man' he filmed is an ordinary hero, not a 'Superman'.
Lao Li said that Man of Tai Chi and 'tai chi' had different approaches to the same ideas: new and old, yin and yang, good and evil, reconciliation and division, independence and intrinsic connection.
"The story of Man of Tai Chi lets people explore in greater depth who they are, and what they want to do." Lao Li said that tai chi is always about both the spiritual and physical, speaking of the rise (?), even gesturing (?).
In Man of Tai Chi, Lao Li plays a 'super villain' - not only controlling whether a person lives or dies, but also controlling a person's will, single-handedly manipulating the "son of tai chi's" life. Lao Li onscreen and offscreen can be described as a 'double director'. Not only is he the movie's director, but in the movie he directs an organisation of 'murder games'.
"The sky is dark, please shut your eyes; murderer, open your eyes, and start killing..."
To many people, it was inconceivable why Keanu Reeves would choose to play a villain. In fact, it is much harder to make people believe in a non-stereotypical villain.
"The sky is bright, open your eyes, start discussing." And listen to Lao Li speak. "It's very fun to play a villain. He has a unique form of violence: he tries to control from a distance, but at the same time controls your soul. This character I play is a lot like Mephistopheles and the devil with his transactions..."
"As an actor, I create for the sake of a character; as a producer, I create for the sake of the story; as a director, I create for the sake of whatever allows me to tell a good story. So, to me, creation is my true foundation."
BQ: Your first time directing was a very enjoyable experience but at the same time, did you encounter some difficulties?
Keanu: It's extremely enjoyable, so I wouldn't use the term 'difficulties'. Many times, difficulties are opportunities. Sometimes you can't find a direction, but in fact the difficulties are giving you a different direction. When the story comes up against some problems, you do more research, and you'll find different solutions. For example, when we were filming, because the schedule was very tight, it was very troublesome, but we found a faster way to shoot, and progressed faster. So to me, difficulties are the best ways to discover opportunities.
BQ: Chen Hu isn't a professional actor. What do you think was the most valuable aspect in his performance?
Keanu: Chen Hu performed really well. He was full of emotion. Watching his transformation in the movie from from a sheet of white paper entering into 'darkness' is extremely shocking. His performance is very natural; he brought a lot of his own character into the performance, and that inner character is very surprising. I don't want you to feel like you're in a play, I hope that you're a part of the play, and through that bring the audience into the drama.
BQ: In The Matrix, you were the star and Chen Hu was the martial arts instructor. But in Man of Tai Chi, Chen Hu moves from behind the scenes to in front of it. How did this role reversal make you feel?
Keanu: This kind of role reversal is great. Chen Hu is a very talented actor, and an excellent martial artist. Real kungfu and movie kungfu are different, but he easily masters both forms. I'm very confident and very hopeful that he will continue down the acting road.
BQ: You made Man of Tai Chi your directorial debut; was this influenced by Chen Hu?
Keanu: Yes. He learnt the inner strength of tai chi, and he also boxes. The name 'Chen Hu' means 'Tiger', and the tiger is a very traditional symbol. Chen Hu's accomplishments in tai chi are comparable to the mastery of a tiger. The movie Man of Tai Chi was in fact inspired by Tai Chi. He received professional tai chi training, his martial arts pervade body, mind and spirit. On second look he's a simultaneously traditional and modern person. This kind of complex diversity allowed him to perfectly illustrate this aspect of tai chi.
BQ: What most attracts you to Chen Hu?
Keanu: It's really hard to say 'most'. I only saw his outstanding kungfu, and saw his wildness and passion. I've been deeply impacted by Chen Hu. We were talking about power, and tactics of force control: if you are very good at kungfu, you can kill a person, and that's a form of strength; you can also, from the angle of responsibiilty, know the importance of a life.
BQ: Do you want to help Chen Hu become the second Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Jet Li?
Keanu: There will never be a second Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Jet Li. Everyone is their own person. I hope that Chen Hu has the opportunity to walk his own path. I feel that he can do a lot: he can do comedy, he's a character actor. I hope that Man of Tai Chi will provide a bigger arena to learn more about him.
Tai Chi: Not for fun
"From one impression comes two, from two comes four, from four comes eight, which represents everything. (Note: I'm just guessing at the translation here and might be completely off. - Ani) Traditional tai chi kungfu is very profound, and will be very different from that seen through the eyes of a Westerner. To me, portraying these cultural differences is very important, and I hope this movie will have universal meaning." - Keanu Reeves
BQ: What understandings did you have of China before you came here?
Keanu: My understanding of China began with my paternal grandmother, from the furnishings in her home, the chairs, the wind, toys marked 'Made in China' and so on. I grew up in Toronto, which has many, many Chinese people; there were lots of Chinese kids at school. In the process of growing up I was always around Chinese cuisine, television, Confucius, 'The Analects'.
BQ: Which Chinese movies had the greatest impact on you?
Keanu: Director Jiang Wen's Let the Bullets Fly, as well as Wang Xiaoshuai's Beijing Bicycle - he's one of the directors in China's sixth generation (?), and it's an extremely touching movie. Then there's also a number of Hong Kong movies, like Overheard, The Departed, The KIller and so on, and of course a few kungfu movies.
BQ: Who was responsible for enlightening you to Chinese kungfu?
Keanu: I don't remember. I grew up in Toronto, Canada, and saw many kungfu movies from the 60s and 70s, so I don't really remember which filmmaker was the first. I remember the first kungfu movie I saw was Five Fingers of Death, and then a few Bruce Lee movies, and then Jackie Chan, then Jet Li, I've seen some of Jet Li's The Shaolin Temple.
BQ: Will having made Man of Tai Chi make you love tai chi even more?
Keanu: Before filming, I already really liked tai chi, which is one of the reasons why we wanted to do this movie. The tai chi I understand might not be a confrontation (?), it's not a contradiction, but when you understand this contradiction, understand the inner connotations, you can use this to do something, like understand other people, empathise with other people.
BQ: Tai chi appears gentle on the surface, but has a very violent strength; how do you see the gentleness and force of tai chi?
Keanu: The general perception of tai chi isn't wrong; tai chi uses the different approaches of both hard and soft to unleash a person's energy. The art of tai chi is in the attack. Chen Hu also has his own style. I feel that the essence of tai chi is in assimilating other people's styles, and then using their own methods against them. We also wanted to express this philosophy.
BQ: You've said before that tai chi isn't just a physical fitness excercise, but also a heart exercise; can you explain further?
Keanu: When you're meditating you will have this kind of understanding: when you're practising some tai chi, you're not only excercising your body, but also incorporating energy from nature and the universe into the excercise. So it's not just exercising your body, but stimulating every cell in your body. You're moving with your feet and your fists, and it's very beautiful, like a dance.
BQ: Tai chi is a hot subject in China this year. What kind of different cultural perspectives do you bring to this subject?
Keanu: I didn't want the tai chi moves in the movie to be exactly like Chen (?) tai chi, so we designed a form of 'spiritual' tai chi, because I didn't want to be restricted to just one particular style; I wanted there to be a sense of fantasy to it, making use of some of the ideas in tai chi, but at the same time we also imitated various other kungfu styles, like Sanda, attack, drag (?) and wrestling. In the movie, the fighting style Chen Hu uses changes along with his character. In the beginning it's more simple, but it gets stronger as his evil side grows, his desire for power increases, and his actions become more and more violent, even assimilating many other boxing styles. All these styles express his character. It's not just martial arts. I would like to say that this movie is ambitious; its fight scenes aren't there to be fun, but to make people think.
BQ: For The Matrix, Yuen Woo Ping designed some very shocking yet beautiful action scenes; after all these years, he's now the action choreographer on your directorial debut. What new breakthroughs did he accomplish this time?
Keanu: Having Yuen Woo Ping is having a master in attendance. The master has his own style, so he doesn't need to come up with another new style. The style comes from the master's hand, you can only experience the realms within. But standing on the shoulders of a master can also let you create a new style. (laughs) He and I had an agreement: there were times where I would ask him how he would shoot a particular scene, and at other times he would achieve the results that I wanted. I think that every action movie should have its own unique label. I can only say that for this, the thing I really wanted was to create a fresh character tailored to Chen Hu. We didn't just want to shoot beautiful shots of fists, we didn't want to just shoot actions. It's an action scene. Filming a martial arts action scene, I try as much as possible to make it such that people can't see the choreography, and see it as very realistic and natural.
BQ: There are people who say that the film is almost non-stop action from start to finish, with 18 fight scenes, and it can make you rather breathless...
Keanu: We actually cut out a few fight scenes, and right now we only have 30 minutes of action, more or less. Even though there's quite a lot of fighting, they each have different styles; most of the time it's 1 vs 1, in one scene it's 1 vs 2. To me, each of those fight scenes relate to Chen Hu's character's development, and isn't fighting for the sake of fighting, and is more watchable.
BQ: There are also people saying that the main reason to watch this movie is to get to see you?
Keanu: Yes! I'm vey happy.
BQ: After this, do you have any further plans to direct?
Keanu: I hope to find a good story to direct again. But at the moment I'm looking forward to returning to acting; next year we might have to start shooting Passengers, and in the fall there'll also be an action movie.