Keanu Reeves: "Man of Tai Chi owes a lot to Michael Haneke"
by Sylvestre Picard
(Translated from French by LucaM, with minor edits by Anakin McFly)
The hero of The Matrix has directed his first film and now talks about Point Break, martial arts, Eastern philosophy and Michael Haneke.
Svelte and sure of himself, Keanu Reeves has not changed. We have before us the eternal Johnny Utah from Point Break, the Neo of The Matrix: time does not seem to have left a mark on him, with the exception of a salt and pepper beard. This April, you can see him on the poster of the cursed blockbuster 47 Ronin, but also - and especially - in front and behind the camera of Man of Tai Chi, a good old-school martial arts movie, his first film as a director. On this occasion, we met with Keanu.
Why this fascination with Asia?
When I made these two films in 2011, I didn’t think they were going to be released almost simultaneously in France in 2014. I grew up watching movies from Hong Kong, kung fu movies, Kurosawa... When I’ve read the haikus of Basho, the form hit me. The melancholy, the conflict, the irony... Even the absurdity inherent to Eastern philosophy - who we are, where we come from ... What is sustainment? Why does the cherry tree blossom? (laughs). Et cetera. The duality between internal and external, the relationship between man and nature.
Man of Tai Chi is your first film as a director. Why did you wait so long?
I was looking for a script that I liked. The Man of Tai Chi won me over, I felt it was a story I really wanted to tell.
How do you know you had the ability?
In fact, I have lots of experience in the field. As an actor, I direct myself and watch the filmmakers at work. Spend plenty of time on the set, pre-production and post-production. Except that this time it's me who does that job.
It's funny, because in the film you play a bit of a director: a guy who organizes martial arts fighting illegally broadcast on the Internet ...
Yeah, that's it. Plus he sets out to direct the hero's life...
What did you like about the script of Man of Tai Chi?
(long silence) What I really liked is that it's the story of Chen Hu, the lead actor. He comes from a background of very traditional tai chi, both on the spiritual side and its purely technical side. He earns money to take care of his family, his master, his temple. Tiger wins fights but gradually loses his soul. The film deals with strong themes: stay true to yourself, refusing the ease of the Western world... It pleased me.
It may be the path of an actor.
Or a journalist. (laughs) Doing bad things for good reasons ... But anyway, I made the movie because it was fun. Staging and filming kung fu fights, it was exciting for me in terms of cinema. Beyond that, I think Man of Tai Chi talks about the relationship between subject and object: it often breaks the fourth wall by addressing the camera, the steadicam immerses you in the combat as if you were there ... There is lot of mise en scène. I was very influenced by Michael Haneke. For me, Funny Games had a huge influence on Man of Tai Chi. Because Haneke addresses the audience, it brings into question the voyeur who becomes observed ... In my film, there is a lot of voyeurism.
You wanted to use a special camera to shoot the fighting.
Yes, I wanted a camera mounted on an arm and controlled by a computer, in order to get close-ups during fight scenes from angles never seen before. Unfortunately it was too expensive for our budget to ship it to China, where we were shooting. We shot with Steadicam and classic crane cameras.
It was Yuen Wo Ping who did the fight choreography. Tiger Chen Hu has worked on The Matrix. And it's been 15 years since the film was released.
Working with them again, it closed the loop. I remember Wo Ping working on The Matrix. He was very collaborative with the Wachowskis. Here [in MOTC] he was a huge help. We choreographed almost all the fights as one against one, with all the details for martial arts fans, including the different fighting styles.
Which film of your career do you think is underestimated?
I haven’t done too bad ... Especially lately. Henry's Crime, Generation Um ... It's hard to say, you always hope that the public will love what you do. But I think A Scanner Darkly was really great.
There's a remake of Point Break in the works. What do you think?
I know nothing about this movie. People have mentioned it to me, and that's all I know. I think it's great.
Oh, no, you can’t say that...
And why not? They won’t remake it, they will reinvent it. I mean, this is a classic. These days, this is what is done. The cinematic storytelling language has changed. Television leads to changes in the way of storytelling. The series format puts pressure on the short format of the cinema. We must constantly reinvent ourselves ... Just like cuisine, it's deconstructed to be reinvented, with today's technology.
There is also talk of a reboot of the Matrix trilogy.
Really? That’s crazy. They can’t do that.