Keanu Reeves makes a smash, bang, boom directorial debut
by Katherine Monk
Debut is a cautionary tale
Not everybody was "kung fu fighting." In this case, it was more a case of "tai chi fighting" - which, for those with a deep understanding of martial arts, may sound like a complete paradox.
It's almost like saying you were "yoga fighting" because many of the movements are identical, but that's the whole point of Man of Tai Chi, the new movie that marks Keanu Reeves's directorial debut.
"It's a cautionary tale," says Reeves. "It's about power and control and the choices we make."
Sitting down at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about the new film that features breakout star and former stunt fighter Tiger Chen, Reeves says the point of the movie is to entertain, but also, hopefully, to make people recognize their own moral responsibility and role in shaping our current reality.
Set in China as well as Hong Kong, the movie's main hero is Chen, a humble motorbike courier who competes in local tai chi tournaments and takes care of his family with limited means.
When he's offered a higher paying job as a fighter for a dark, sinister billionaire played by Reeves, Chen is faced with a big decision: Does he use his power for good, or evil?
And exactly how does one separate the two when the boundaries between morality and survival grow blurrier every day?
"I wanted to tell a story about the changing China," says Chen, a one-time stunt fighter who met Reeves on the set of The Matrix trilogy alongside martial arts master choreographer Yuen Woo-ping.
"This is about old traditions and the new world. They don't have to work against each other. I think we can combine the two and make something new for a new generation," says Chen.
Reeves says he's not a real martial artist by any stretch. He doesn't even do stunts.
"I do movie Kung Fu," he says. "There's a big difference."
The real genesis was simply working with Chen, easily the next rising star on the martial arts movie horizon. Yet, the more they started to develop the story, the more he realized it was something he wanted to direct.
"While we were working together, we were creating, and that reflects your creative thought and what you want to say. So in a way it becomes personal."
Reeves points to a moment in the film where Chen is practising with his tai chi master, and he breaks the spear instead of channelling his qi and mastering his physical presence to avoid the threat - the core of tai chi as a defensive art.
"His master tells him to meditate on his life. And when he breaks the spear, he asks Tiger how he feels and he says ‘good,'" says Reeves. "Then, he meets his dark master Donaka (played by Reeves), and after a fight I ask him how he feels about it, and he says ‘good.' And I say ‘good.'"
In other words, the "good" is actually kind of "bad" because it's surrendering to the dark heart of violence instead of mastering the light of control.
"It's sophisticated camp," says Reeves, who has no problem if people laugh over the course of the reel. "It's supposed to be fun, but also deep with a nice message."
We can all be seduced by power, says Reeves, whose character embodies the slick greed that now embodies the modern notion of success.
"Donaka, in his own Mephistophelian way, asks Tiger to fight for his family, to fight for others. And sometimes we say we are doing something for others, but I think you have to ask yourself why," he says.
"Oftentimes the choices that we make can lead us personally down paths that can corrupt, and in a way lose our good and authentic selves. And that's the cautionary tale aspect of it: that the modern world is kind of consuming us and we're kind of going along for the ride."
Reeves says there's nothing he can think of in his own life that would make this movie particularly relevant on a personal note. But he does say it was a personal movie because he was behind the camera, executing and evaluating the myriad decisions of the shoot itself.
"I love being under pressure. It's fantastic. I like having responsibilities, it really gets you going," he says with the tone of a Boy Scout leader offering a pep talk to a pack of young cubs.
"We probably had more coverage than any other movie like this," he says, as Chen nods in agreement.
"But it was considered coverage, not just to get it and figure it out later. I wanted to play with elevations and the subjective and the objective. There is even one scene where Tiger pushes the camera away," says Reeves.
"We break the fourth wall. I broke a lot of rules, but I felt I could because the story kept telling me I could."
Photo caption: Actor Keanu Reeves arrives at the "Man Of Tai Chi" Premiere during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival at Ryerson Theatre on September 10, 2013 in Toronto, Canada.