Man of Tai Chi (2013)

Posted in Reviews by - February 10, 2014
Man of Tai Chi (2013)

Keanu Reeves takes bold and ambitious steps for his directorial debut. Man of Tai Chi is a bilingual, contemporary kung fu film made in mostly Mandarin and filmed entirely in Beijing and Hong Kong. Given the large sums of money China has ploughed into its native film industry in a bid to overtake, or at least overshadow, the commercial might of Hollywood, Reeves’ film may hint towards the sort of Asian-American cross-pollination we should expect to see more of in the years to come.

Business aside, this still looks like the sort of film Keanu Reeves has wanted to make for a lifetime, especially considering his well documented love of Asian cinema. Yet somewhere along the line it seems his labour of love has been compromised. The messy narrative jumps from a gritty Hong Kong cop drama with Karen Mok playing a put-upon detective, to a meditative study in the ancient art of Tai Chi, to a wire-fu tournament movie and a colour-saturated neo-noir set among the constant surveillance of reality television. It’s all a bit much.

To Reeves’ credit, however, the film manages to redeem itself through great choreography which crosses a gauntlet of styles – all of which is perfect fodder for leading man Tiger Hu Chen. Tiger was part of The Matrix stunt team and Reeves, rather unselfishly, casts himself as the film’s English-speaking villain: an ageless, sinister big shot in a smart suit and Bluetooth headset running an illegal underground fight club where there is “no referee, no rules”. Tiger falls under his corrupt spell as the ‘dark side’ envelops his character. The hard and soft styles of Tai Chi are personified by his rival masters; one wearing black (Reeves), the other in white (Yu Hai), just in case the Yin/Yang metaphor wasn’t obvious enough.

The high-rolling fight club story is nothing new – we’ve seen this a lot in other contemporary films like Fatal Contact, Bangkok Knockout, Blood and Bone and so on – and there are some completely fantastical moments where it feels more like Mortal Kombat than modern China. As a whole, it doesn’t quite fit together. But Reeves’ passion for the martial arts and his commitment to showing a breadth of technique comes to the fore, even if he does appear to be acting like he’s stuck in a video game.

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