Fantastic Fest 2013: Nordling Talks With Keanu Reeves And Tiger Chen About MAN OF TAI CHI!
I loved MAN OF TAI CHI at Fantastic Fest. I think Keanu Reeves didn't make a spoof, or an homage - he made a genuinely great martial arts movie, just like the ones from our youth. He has a great eye and a sense of action choreography that gives the movie a visual style, and not only is his villainous performance a lot of fun, he gets terrific performances from everyone else, including Karen Mok and the amazing-to-watch Tiger Chen. Sometimes a simple, direct route is the best way to go, and MAN OF TAI CHI is a solid entry in the genre.
I felt very privileged to talk to both Keanu Reeves and Tiger Chen at Fantastic Fest. This was the night after the Fantastic Debates, and while Tim League won the popular vote, it's safe to say that Tiger definitely destroyed him in the ring. This wasn't a fake match by any stretch of the imagination: watch the video below and know that Tim had his ass handed to him like a plate of dumplings. But I admire Tim tremendously for getting into the ring in the first place:
MAN OF TAI CHI is available now on VOD, On Demand, and iTunes, and the only reason you shouldn't be ordering it right now is that you're waiting for the theatrical release on November 1st, which is wise. Reeves made a terrifically fun movie and I can't wait to see everyone react to it.
Nordling: There's a particular shot that I wanted to ask you about - the inspiration behind the Yin Yang wipe.
Keanu Reeves: Ah. Yeah, obviously the film is utilizing, starting with the title, a lot of iconographic ideas and elements of tai chi. Not just the martial art but the internal aspect of it, the meditation, so that wipe for me comes after the super fight, and something has changed, and the opening credits flash back in white. So I wanted to have this transition that went into the new beginning that takes place at the end part of the film. So I went digital. It's a very digital image. It's broad. It's a bold thing to do - well, not that bold. But cinematically it's fun storytelling.
Nordling: (To Tiger) I love how your character transitions. You have to take him to some dark places for what your character is going through and how he's changing. How was that for you as an actor?
Tiger Chen: As an actor, it feels so real while we're shooting the movie, just getting deeper and deeper, darker and darker. It feels so real. And I think I've experienced it before, you know, in my way of life, when I was training, when I was younger. There were lots of opportunities outside, but I tried to stay with my master and keep training, but there's so much stuff going on in this world.
Nordling: One of the things I love about action cinema, and a lot of films don't get right anymore, it's almost become a lost art, is spatial geography in action and fighting sequences. It's a shame, because MAN OF TAI CHI is refreshingly free of shakycam. Talk about how you and Woo-Ping Yuen made each fight individual.
Keanu Reeves: Woo-Ping really was our ground in the sense of the opportunity that the story has in that Tiger fights so many different styles and also goes on this journey where he's innocent to a darker place, almost a killer, where he loses himself while he's gaining himself. Woo-Ping was very collaborative and creative in creating the drama and choreography of how Tiger changes his styles and the styles that he fights against. His choreography is very clean. It's like master clean, every gesture, every move has a story to tell, and a context. Spatially, that was something that myself and the cinematographer (Elliot Davis)-
Nordling: He was really great.
Keanu Reeves: Yeah, we had great operators too - Davy from Hong Kong who's done a lot of action, does great steadicam. And I was trying to do something which was a lot of subjective and objective, but I did want you to always know where you were in the room. And also not to have cutting but to put you in the right spot to see it, and not to artificially create drama like you said, shakycam, like, "It's moving so it's got energy!" I wanted the camera to be in a place that's capturing energy, and to move with the energy.
Nordling: Your character is so great, he's funny as hell-
Keanu Reeves: YOU OWE ME A LIFE. (Everyone laughs)
Nordling: It's going to launch a thousand memes and gifs online, you know that, right?
Keanu Reeves: DOES IT MATTER? (Laughs) He's so to the point. You know, when people say, "I'm sorry, does it matter? Really?"
Nordling: I was talking to the guys outside, you almost want an edit on the DVD or Blu-Ray where the lipsynch is a little off, and it plays like Kung Fu Theater on Saturday morning...
Keanu Reeves: Oh my God! (laughs) Out of synch, heighten it even more!
Nordling: Obviously, you're having a lot of fun in the role. Was that in the script for you, or something you saw and thought, "I could totally have fun with this?"
Keanu Reeves: We collaborated together on the story with Michael Cooney and executive producer Daxing Zhang for many years. Once we decided to go down into the underground fighting road, to go into the netherworld, we needed the netherworld gatekeeper, the dark master, and that was Donaka. And I just seemed to have a proclivity for Donaka's voice. I enjoyed him, I enjoyed his nefarious, Mephistophelian place.
Nordling: "Innocent." (Everyone laughs)
Keanu Reeves: But even there, he's controlling a monitor, right? Isolating the figure, right, because for me he was so much about control, but control at a distance. But yeah, he's controlling the monitor, saying "Innocent," and what does that mean? He's someone that just wants to consume innocence. And I feel like we're surrounded by that a lot.
Nordling: As this is your directorial first film, when you started your career you knew this was the direction that you wanted to go in? Was a genre film the first thing you wanted to do as a director? How did that come about?
Keanu Reeves: Yeah, I would say like eight years ago I started to think about directing; I'd been acting for so long, and then I started to produce and develop scripts and so it just kinda started to happen. And my eye went to the cinema, and I've always been interested in cinema, and what I mean by that is camera placement, how you are telling a story. So as we collaborated on the script, it just became the story that I wanted to tell. I love kung fu movies. I feel like in their best forms - not the best forms, I like the opportunity they have to be almost how science fiction works, that they can abstract. That they can have social commentary with archetypes.
Nordling: Right, and I'm a genre cinema guy. I think genre cinema is the best kind of cinema to talk about social issues. I think MAN OF TAI CHI does that as well, especially with the Internet, and how much belongs to us and isn't taken away and spread across the world...
Keanu Reeves: And manipulated, and controlled, and how do you participate in it, yeah.
Nordling: Karen Mok is wonderful.
Keanu Reeves: Aw! Yes! Karen Mok is fantastic.
Tiger Chen: She's so great.
Nordling: If you were going to do another sequel, I'd love to see a Karen Mok, John Woo-ish HARD BOILED kind of thing.
Keanu Reeves: I want to make her, I think that she could be - "I want to make her," listen to me. "I wanna make her a star!" (laughs) She is a movie star. I agree. I think she wants to do action. I think she's great.
Nordling: Tiger, obviously you had to prepare for a whole lot of different styles of fighting, what was the most difficult aspect of that for you? You're staying within tai chi, but there's wrestling, there's ju jitsu, there's tae kwon do, all of that. What was the most difficult to adapt and to keep the same style?
Tiger Chen: I think the MMA style. To absorb the MMA style I had to keep the tai chi form. You can't just fight in MMA, you have to base it in tai chi. So you have to fight like MMA and still stay in your tai chi style. That was pretty hard for me. Every time I'd start a fight, I'd think to myself, "You're a tai chi guy, remember!"
Nordling: You got to keep your center and your focus.
Keanu Reeves: That's in the way that he blocks, and the kind of punches he throws.
Nordling: The idea behind tai chi in the movie isn't so much in punching but in not being punched, and in outmaneuvering your opponent. Guys, that about wraps it up for me, but I have to say it was a really great movie. Oh, and thank you for not killing Tim League last night.
Keanu Reeves: He threw in some good blows.
Nordling: Yeah, that one punch where you flew up in the air and came down, and I was right there on the sidelines, and thinking, "Oh dude, you just fucking killed Tim!" But you came down on a really soft part of the padding, which was nice.
Keanu Reeves: Yeah, for Tim. (Laughs)