Keanu Reeves Channels ‘The Matrix’ With ‘Man of Tai Chi’
by Dean Napolitano
Keanu Reeves has worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest directors. Now it’s his turn to step behind the camera.
The star of “The Matrix” trilogy makes his directorial debut with “Man of Tai Chi,” an action thriller set in China about man named Linhu, a martial-arts expert played by Tiger Chen, who’s forced to compete in illegal fight tournaments by a powerful businessman (Mr. Reeves). Linhu eventually is seduced by the power of combat and money, as he struggles to find balance and goodness in his life.
The corruption of a pure soul is a theme with which Mr. Reeves is familiar. “It’s a classic genre,” he says.
In “The Devil’s Advocate,” the 1997 film in which he starred opposite Al Pacino, he played a young attorney doing the work of Satan. “I guess directors have found that I’m appropriate” for these types of roles, he says.
“Man of Tai Chi” reunites Mr. Reeves with his “Matrix” action team: action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping and Mr. Chen, a stuntman who plays the title character in his first starring role.
The film also stars top Hong Kong actress Karen Mok as a cop trying to stop the underground fighting. “It was a dream to work with him,” she says of Mr. Reeves.
“Man of Tai Chi” — a China-U.S. co-production, and filmed in Beijing and Hong Kong — opened in China in July and is making its North American premiere this week at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The Journal caught up with Mr. Reeves by phone earlier this summer in Beijing, where he was promoting the movie. Edited excerpts follow.
WSJ: How did you get involved with this film?
Keanu Reeves: I worked with [Tiger] Chen on “The Matrix” trilogy — he was part of the action team, he helped trained me. I’m on screen with him briefly in the second “Matrix” film. We became friends, and over the years we spoke about working together and he wanted to act. I thought that he was a great martial artist and a very accomplished stunt man, but also I saw that he had a passion for acting.
Why did you decide to direct it?
It started off as trying to work together — with the intention of acting with him in a film. We spent years developing what ultimately became “Man of Tai Chi,” and it started to fill my heart and my vision. I’ve been thinking about directing for the past five years and always said if I found a story to tell, I would do it. And “Man of Tai Chi” became that story.
Where did you get the idea for the story?
The premise was inspired by Chen’s life. He’s from Chengdu [in central China]. He grew up with a traditional martial-arts background in tai chi, but then he became a stuntman. He was aspirational, he worked in Hollywood — he was looking for life and reaching out.
How did the story develop from there?
For me, there was this traditional side and this modern side to him. That felt like a good base for this story of tai chi: a man going on this dark journey to self-actualization. We used the themes of tai chi, yin and yang, light and dark, good and bad — the idea of balance, the idea of these things being separate but also interconnected. Tiger’s character is fighting and he’s winning, but he’s losing his soul.
What draws you to this theme about a lost soul?
I don’t know if that comes from a personal world view or not. I definitely think with “Man of Tai Chi,” there’s this idea of trying to maintain an authentic self — or your best self, or compassionate self — against seduction, struggles and responsibilities in this world. Trying to hold on to what’s good.
What was it like working in China?
We had wonderful actors and wonderful crews. I was surprised at how it was more the same than different from making a film in the states. Except for what to eat for lunch, it seemed to have a sameness. I guess the culture of movies, is the culture of movies. The camera, the lighting, the costumes, production design. Those are the tools.