Keanu Reeves Bowed to Chinese Censors to Make ‘Man of Tai Chi’
by Dan Levin
The movie “Man of Tai Chi” would seem like a perfect fit for the booming Chinese film market: a lowly courier with upwardly mobile ambitions gains wealth and renown by lethally leveraging his skills in the ancient meditative practice to vanquish a series of bloodthirsty rivals. Think “Kung Fu Panda” meets “Fight Club.” Then throw in Keanu Reeves, who often has taken the role of the stoic underdog hero, as both the kung fu-fighting villain — and the director. Taking several pages from classic martial arts films that made actors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li world famous and updating the concept for a modern world marked by an ascendant China, Mr. Reeves obtained funding for his directorial debut largely from the state-owned China Film Group. But even that financial backing was no match for the arch-enemies of film directors who covet mainland China as cinematic landscape and gold mine: Chinese government censors.
In an interview on Canadian television that aired Monday night, Mr. Reeves acknowledged that his creative plans had been thwarted by the powerful forces that rule the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. Notoriously tetchy about plot lines that might remind audiences of mainland China’s darker realities, the censors forced Mr. Reeves and his band of modern-day gladiators to take their mortal combat elsewhere.
“They didn’t want underground fighting in mainland China, in the capital of China,” he said on the show, “George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight.” “So in Beijing there’s no underground fighting. And there’s no corrupt police officers.” Cue: audience laughter.
To make the film, Mr. Reeves set those scenes in Hong Kong, the former British colony that has reverted to Chinese rule but that enjoys special autonomy and greater freedoms than on the mainland.
The star of the “Matrix” trilogy is not the first director forced to bend his story line to Chinese political will. The zombie apocalypse blockbuster “World War Z” gutted a central plot point of the original book — the undead infection begins in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan and spreads across the globe thanks to China’s illegal organ trade — instead vaguely attributing the outbreak to Taiwan, which the Chinese government considers a breakaway province.
Last year’s remake of “Red Dawn” originally featured the Chinese Army invading the United States. But MGM chose to spend $1 million in post-production to turn the villains into North Koreans, rather than risk offending China and losing out on distribution deals.
Working with China allowed Mr. Reeves to limit such fallout by cutting down on controversial content beforehand. “I had to take down some of the violence,” he said. “I had one sequence where the lead punched someone in the head 11 times, so we made it five.” In another scene, the fists flew 17 times instead of 32.
Ever the optimist, Mr. Reeves spun the challenge of government meddling as a force for creative inspiration.
“Now the film takes place in Beijing and Hong Kong and that opened up the world,” he said. “So for me that wasn’t, like, a bad experience.”
Considering that “Man of Tai Chi” has underperformed at the Chinese box office since its release on the mainland in July, one hopes Mr. Reeves can harness that philosophical tranquility when the film opens in the United States on Nov. 1.