Man of Tai Chi: Keanu Reeves Directing Debut

The root of the Chinese word “taiji” roughly translates to “the supreme polarity” – that point where energy is both charged with equal parts movement and tranquility. For most who practice the martial art of Tai Chi Chuan, achieving this enlightened state usually involves slow, meditative movements that emphasize balance, patience, and serenity.

But even dedicated practitioners in the West might be astonished to learn that Tai Chi has a long history as an effective martial art in physical competition, as legends of fighters, warriors, and competitors who use the principles and skills of Tai Chi attest. Although considered a “soft” martial art by many – primarily defensive and cerebral – there is a “hard” side to Tai Chi that potentially allows a fighter to strike with deadly quick accuracy, countering an opponent’s aggressiveness with a single, crippling blow. But fighting with “hardness” is something that Tai Chi masters tell their students to avoid, as mutual injury is the most likely outcome.

This struggle between soft and hard, between the light and dark part of the human soul, is the backdrop of the struggle featured in the martial arts drama MAN OF TAI CHI, the first fictional feature film from director Keanu Reeves, a longtime devotee of the martial arts. “Chen Lin-Hu is an everyman who has these extraordinary abilities and knowledge,” Reeves observes about the film’s hero. “He is the last student of Ling Kong Tai Chi…at the same time he lives in Beijing and works as a delivery guy, so he’s leading this double life in a way, traditional in the martial arts but modern in his living. Now, his master is kind of telling him to start thinking about his power and who he is, and Tiger wants to externalize, to get recognition from the outside world, even though his master doesn’t think that using Tai Chi in public fighting can’t prove anything. So the story is about his journey through light and dark.”

The origins of the story date back nearly fifteen years, to when martial artist Tiger Chen Hu met Keanu Reeves while working as part of the stunt team for THE MATRIX. Their friendship developed over the course of the trilogy of films, with Tiger eventually assuming more prominent stunt roles, impressing Reeves with his work ethic and imagination. “I had to do Kung Fu training with Tiger, and he would tell me stories about his Tai Chi master and his unusual training methods,” Reeves recalls today. “That lead to a lot of deeper conversations about the Tao of life, Chi, martial arts, everything.” It was from these initial conversations that the two eventually decided to collaborate on a screen play that would not just feature Tai Chi as a device or excuse for high-octane fight and action sequences, but actually reflect the martial arts philosophical values within the story.

“Traditional versus contemporary is the biggest idea in the script,” says screenwriter Michael G. Cooney. “Tiger struggles with traditional man’s values and morals in a society that doesn’t have any place for them. If you want to be successful in the modern world, most of the time it’s cutthroat, and if you were born and raised with those traditional values of respecting others and finding balance in your life you can get left behind. That’s where we being with Tiger – no matter how hard he struggles, he still seems to have fallen behind.”

In addition to capturing the more universal aspects of the story, Cooney also had to deal with the practical problem of crafting a screenplay where the characters speak three languages – about one-quarter of the film is in English, with the rest in Chinese or Cantonese. Although Cooney doesn’t speak either of the Asian languages, he embraced the challenge. “I’ve traveled a bit and I’ve experienced a lot of different cultures, and I loved the nuances and mundane day-to-day life activities, people’s mannerisms and behaviors, I love exploring that,” he enthuses. “Those are the things we tried to capture, which we discussed a lot with Tiger. ‘What would you say, what would your mother say,’ things like that. Then we started working with Chinese writers about a year and a half ago, doing several rewrites. It was a constant process, back and forth, between Chinese, Chinglish, and English, with the dialogue – but we wanted to be culturally accurate, we wanted it to be authentic, and we didn’t want to offend or insult people by misusing their language, like the World War II films where all the Nazis speak English with German accents for some reason. We wanted it to be primarily a Chinese film, but we’re confident that everyone can relate to the story.”

Tiger Chen Hu believes that the character Tiger’s struggle is something that most audience will be able to relate to, even if they have no experience with martial arts or the underlying philosophy of taiji. “It’s easy to get trapped by the idea of money and power,” says Chen Hu. “Young people like money, smoking, drinking, but all that stuff is excess in the world. But you can’t just say, oh, I’m forbidden to know so I will just stay in my temple of purity. If you want to be completely Taoist, you have to go taste that. You have to go through the journey, to see it through, otherwise you aren’t really part of the full life.”

In addition to borrowing his own nickname for the character and collaborating with Reeves and Cooney on the script, Chen Hu also was happy to lend his own perspective and experience to help flesh out the story. “Tiger is about eighty percent me, my experiences, my personality, I think,” he says today. “Keanu said we don’t have to make another person, we’ll just put you into the story. So it was easy for him to ask me questions like ‘what would you feel like in this situation,’ and I could answer.” These conversations were often held across oceans and continents via video chat, leading to some unusual hours for Tiger to contemplate the fate of his character: “It would be the middle of the night when I would start these calls, and Keanu and Michael would be talking about the story. They’d ask me through the computer, ‘how would you feel’ and I’d answer, and they’d go back to talking and I’d fall asleep on the call. Then, a half hour later, they’d shout ‘Tiger!’ and ask me another question.”

Like his film’s namesake, Chen Hu trained in Tai Chi as a youth before moving on to other forms of martial arts in order to develop himself as a stunt artist and film professional. “Two years before we started filming, I went to another Tai Chi master to specifically train for the role of Tiger,” he recalls. “Tai Chi is a very unique martial art with a different philosophy: you are always trying to use the opponent’s power; you have to wait for the opponent to punch, kick, whatever, to throw power at you, so you can give the power back – you never attack first.”

Because of the complexity of Tai Chi as a martial art, Chen Hu, Reeves, and master fight coordinator Yuen Wo Ping (another MATRIX veteran and a legendary fight choreographer and film director) had to ask themselves unusual questions when creating the fight sequences for MAN OF TAI CHI. “I think it’s the first time you have MMA [Mixed Martial Arts] style versus Tai Chi,” says Chen-Hu. “And, of course, we have to make all of the fights different from one another, so it’s not just the same moves over and over. Finally, you also have to tell the story, to live the journey through Tiger.” This would lead Reeves to ask Hu-Chen questions that are unfamiliar to most fighters used to basic stunt fighting: “Keanu would ask me ‘why do you have to kick?’ That’s a hard question to answer….why do you have to throw the punch or the kick now, at this moment.” “The fighting scenes had to express that journey,” adds Reeves. “Where Tiger is emotionally, and that got into the specifics of where you are in your head, what style of martial arts are you fighting, what are you feeling during the fight, and how do you change as a result of this fight? Every scene had to have change and development of the character going into the fight sequences.”

Ultimately, Reeves was very impressed Chen Hu’s ability to render Tiger not only in terms of martial artistry, but also in terms of emotional vulnerability. “Tiger is a very talented actor,” Reeves avers, noting that even as a stuntman on THE MATRIX films, he was able to immediately understand the need for playing a character and not just executing the physical moves. “I saw him do some work with Laurence Fishburne, and I could tell that he knew what it took to shoot a scene, to be on a movie set. So acting wasn’t unfamiliar to him; and in terms of the character work, he was so open and committed, and he completely understood the role.” Reeves cites one fight sequence where Hu-Chen’s performance during the shooting forced Reeves to reconsider the way the scene would be shot: “The way he looked at his opponent, I had to change the way we filmed the fight…that came from Tiger’s understanding of the character and the situation, and being alive as an actor. I look forward to see what he’s going to do with his acting in the future.”

For Reeves, it wasn’t simply a matter of guiding Chen Hu, a stunt man largely unused to the demands of a leading man who must carry the emotional weight of the film. He also had to supervise an international crew, most of whom who spoke an unfamiliar language, as well as bring weight and meaning to the role of Donaka Mark, the film’s shadowy antagonist. “One of my feelings about acting and directing at the same time is that as a directly, you are really looking outward. You have something internal, an idea, a feeling, and you look outward and you collaborate. As an actor, you have a perspective of the outside but you’re looking at your place in it from this internal perspective. So it’s almost like having two sets of eyes. It was a new world for me, but it was a really great world to explore.”

As an actor, Reeves had to bring his darker side to the forefront in order to convey the deeply complex Donaka, an otherwise successful legitimate businessman who goes to extreme lengths to keep his secret underground fighting ring alive. “It’s not just about the fighting for Donaka, it’s something else,” Reeves observes. “He’s a Mephistophelian character who enjoys watching a person evolve and change through their fighting; he draws you to the dark side with that fascination, so he’s fun to play. Oftentimes the protagonist is on a journey of discovery, but the villain knows everything that is going on, and that has a certain freedom and pleasure to it. I haven’t played a lot of villains, but I’ve played a couple and I enjoy it.”

And how did Reeves the director find Reeves the actor? “Keanu is a true professional,” he jokes. “Shows up on times, knows his lines. It took him a little while to figure out how me moved and stuff, it took a little more attention on the first day, but after that he did okay.” Meanwhile, Keanu Reeves, actor, has plenty of good things to say about his director, Keanu Reeves: “It’s his first time directing, but when I met him, it felt like I’d known him a long time, and had a really good relationship with him. I had the confidence he knew what he was doing.”

As a new director, Reeves knew he’d need a top notch production team to help him realize his vision and give the film a strong, unique visual style. That began with fight master Yuen Wo Ping. “I got to work with him on THE MATRIX trilogy,” Reeves said, “and he’s a legend and a wonderful person. I went to him and said ‘Wo Ping please lord would you do this’ and he liked the script, had worked with Tiger, and agreed to come aboard. He was nothing but supportive and collaborative, and to watch him work again and spend time with him trying to figure out these fights was really cool.”
Veteran Japanese production designer Yohei Taneda – best known to American audiences for his work on KILL BILL: VOL. 1 and an eight-time nominee for the Japanese Academy Award – was brought aboard to create the unusual underground fighting rings that Donaka utilizes and the fictional mountainside temple where Tiger studies. “Taneda-san is such a professional and a lovely person, it’s inspiring. The sets he did for the temple were extraordinary, and he helped create that balance between the traditional world and the modern world with great sensibility and taste. He brought so much to the film – the literal shape of the environments that we are in.”

Reeves also applauds the relationship that developed between Taneda and director of photography Elliot Davis. “Their collaboration was great, and Elliot is the kind of guy who says ‘what do you want to do, what do you want to see,’ but he’s also looking out for me, suggesting that we get some shots that will help me in editing. But what made him ideal for me was his sensitivity to character, and how he can capture that in the lens – you see that in so many of his films from the “Twilight” series to OUT OF SIGHT and I AM SAM.” Reeves acknowledges that Davis was also on board to try some unusual techniques with the fight sequences: “I was talking a lot about objective and subjective point-of-view, so there’s a lot of breaking the fourth wall, shooting the fights in a way that can feel more dramatic as a scene as well as being exciting from an action standpoint.”

For Davis, who had never worked in the Far East before, one of the challenges in working with a mostly Chinese crew was understanding the difference in artistic cultures and temperaments. “In the West, creativity is measured by out of the box thinking and how spontaneous you can be, how much you can push the envelope,” he explains. “But the Chinese have spent centuries adhering to a social system and a hierarchy and a certain way of thinking that says creativity is doing what is expected. At first, I kept asking my crew to exercise their own initiative, but by the end, we had a really good meeting of the minds. I started to say ‘this is what I want, but how would you do it in China?’ So both sides had to begin by listening…they told me how they would do it, and I would take that end and make it my own.”

Since he’d never shot a martial arts film before, Davis relied upon Reeves’ intuition and knowledge of fight films to help guide him through the action sequences – a journey made easier because both men knew how important it was to keep the story at the forefront. “Keanu wanted to elucidate the fights, I would say,” Davis explains. “We continually came back to how does the fight push the drama forward, how does the fight serve the character versus the other way around?” And how does the veteran cameraman evaluate his novice director? “Keanu is very, very intense. From start to finish, he knew the goal and he took every step like it was an important one. He’s probably the most prepared director I’ve ever worked with in terms of doing his homework – he had books for every character, every category, production design, cinematography, writing, so he was totally maxed out. I think his expectations were high, and I think what he learned was about the organic process of moviemaking – some of it is out of your control and you have to embrace it. And he did, to an amazing degree – he’d say ‘that’s what the movie gods gave us today!’ I think that kind of became the modus operandi of the movie, take what you’ve been given and make the most of it.”

“He’s a dream come true,” says actress Karen Mok, who plays “super badass cop” Jing-Si, of her director. “Directors can be scary sometimes, but he’s not. He’s very specific, but he doesn’t dictate that you do A, B, or C, he gives you space and freedom to bring stuff into your character. He’s not just the director, he’s also a very good actor, so I get two for the price of one!” Mok also says that the “Western” pace of filmmaking has been a blessing. “The way we usually do movies here in Hong Kong it’s go-go-go. Now we actually have some time and space to try things out…I feel like I’m doing some sort of drama master class since we have more time to try various things.” Mok hopes that she gets to work with Reeves again as an actor, since she only has a few brief scenes with him in this film. “And if I could be greedy I’d actually want to be in a band with him, because he’s a musician as well.” she confesses.

Ultimately, MAN OF TAI CHI is a film with universal appeal because it remains an age-old story of a young man coming to terms with his potential and harnessing his power for the greater good. “My hope and ambition,” says Keanu Reeves “was to create a modern morality play, cautionary tale, and story of positive actualization and consciousness in a classic, genre-specific story – the Kung Fu movie.” In addition to introducing the Western world to a new image of the practice of Tai Chi and its “ultimate polarity” of light and dark, of power and control, of movement and potential, Reeves is confident the film “will promote mindfulness in the struggle we all face to maintain our authentic self and culture in the seductions, responsibilities and challenges of our times.”