With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Friday, November 01, 2013

ACF 2096: MAN OF TAI CHI opens nationwide today, Friday, November 1

All images courtesy of RADIUS-TWC
Man of Tai Chi
Directed by Keanu Reeves
Action Director: Yuen Wo Ping 
Written by Michael G. Cooney 
Starring: Tiger Chen, Keanu Reeves, Karen Mok,  and Simon Yam
USA/China/Hong Kong, 2013, 105 minutes
In English, Mandarin and Cantonese,
with appropriate English subtitles 

Man of Tai Chi opens in U.S. theaters nationwide today, Friday, November 1st, 2013. The film marks the directorial debut of Keanu Reeves.

The titular character is Tiger (played by Tiger Chen). He's a practitioner of the martial art of Tai Chi Chuan (here, as is often the case, referred to simply as Tai Chi). He gets up early so he can practice with Master Yang (Yu Hai) at the temple that was the birthplace of Ling Kong Tai Chi 600 years ago. Then he goes to work delivering packages on a motorized trike.

Master Yang (Yu Hai, left) and Tiger (Tiger Chen)

Tiger competes in the Wulin Wang Championship in Beijing against proponents of other martial arts. Although he is the dark horse, he has made it to the fourth round and looks capable of going all the way. His impressive skills bring him to the attention of Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves, here cast against type as the villain). Donaka heads an apparently legitimate security company in Hong Kong, but he also runs an illegal fight club based there. He has Chen brought from Beijing to Hong Kong and proposes that he participate in the underground fights, but Chen initially turns down the invitation.

Soon after, and presumably at the instigation of Donaka, a developer seeks to build a project on the site of the temple, which is given a 30 day eviction notice because it has been deemed unsafe. Tiger changes his mind and agrees to fight so that he can use his winnings to pay for the repairs that must be made to save the temple. While his intentions are good, the means that he's forced to use to achieve them undermine his good character, leading to a loss of innocence, and turn him into an increasingly brutal and heartless fighter.

The supporting cast includes two venerable Hong Kong actors in small roles. Karen Mok plays Suen Jing Si, a Hong Kong police investigator who is on to Donaka and his game. Unfortunately she has lost contact with her source within the fight club and, having no concrete evidence, is ordered to drop her investigation by her superior, Superintendent Wong (Simon Yam).

I have been a student of Tai Chi for over twenty years and have therefore chosen to take a two-pronged approach to reviewing the film: first as a martial arts action movie, secondly as one, at least nominally, about Tai Chi.

Reeves is a "lifelong fan of martial arts movies with fond memories of seeing Five Fingers of Death [also known as King Boxer] and Enter the Dragon in Times Square theaters." (David Marchese, NY Times; see link at the end of this article). That familiarity with and fondness for such films is evident in Man of Tai Chi. In fact, Reeves seemed unable to resist the hoary chestnut of powerful energy being emitted from the palms of martial adepts, as seen in Five Fingers and other films. Such mystical techniques may make for exciting viewing, but they have no basis in reality, certainly none in Tai Chi Chuan, where the concept of discharging ch'i (vital energy) is something different altogether. Also, the initial underground fight scene includes a disembodied voice issuing the command to "Finish him," i.e., for the victor to kill his defeated opponent. This surely will bring to mind the classic fighting video game Mortal Kombat to anyone who has even the slightest familiarity with it.

Tiger Chen and Keanu Reeves

With regards to Tai Chi Chuan, there are certainly a good number of points made that are faithful to its principles. Master Yang speaks of the importance of meditation to understanding the discipline. Sifu (teacher) Domingo Colon, with whom I have been studying for several years at his Tai Chi School of Westchester, often begins and ends classes with periods of standing meditation. [I must here express thanks to my sifu for sharing his thoughts on this movie; they were most helpful in formulating some of my own about it.]

Master Yang advises Tiger to use meditation "to clear your mind, guide your ch'i - and gain control," not to let his ch'i control him. And the first time they work out with one another, their standing push hands, which transitions into a moving form, is soft and lovely to behold.

When asked by Donaka what style of Tai Chi he uses, Tiger replies, "My own." This response, which echoes Bruce Lee's development of Jeet Kun Do, also frees the movie from criticism that it misrepresents any particular school or style. On the other hand, Master Yang's name would imply an association with the Yang family style founded by Yang Lu'chan in the latter half of the 19th century.

There are certainly some incongruities within the film. Tai Chi Chuan is a soft martial art; it uses evasion and deflection to neutralize incoming energy. It never meets hard force with hard force. An elderly martial artist who is a commentator at the Wulin Wang Championship competition says that Tiger "used soft style in a hard way." When a regular sportscaster asks if that isn't a contradiction, the response is an enigmatic smile, which caused me to shake my head in amused bewilderment, because it is indeed a statement that doesn't make any sense to me. Tiger also uses such moves as a flying, spinning roundhouse kick, something that looks cool and dramatic, but doesn't have much to do with any aspect of Tai Chi that I'm aware of.

I don't wish to make too much out of all this, because the film is intended to be an entertainment -- which it surely is -- and not a serious introduction to Tai Chi. As one would expect, action director Yuen Wo Ping (who has performed similar duties on Iron Monkey, Tai  Chi Master, The Grandmaster and many more action films ) has done a fantastic job. The fights are inventive, varied and exciting. The production values are high and Reeves has acquitted himself well behind the camera. Tiger Chen, whose previous work has almost entirely been as a stuntman (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Charlie's Angels; The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions), does a good job as the dramatic lead while performing amazing moves.

ACF Rating: 3 out of 4 stars. Man of Tai Chi is a solidly enjoyable martial arts film and an accomplished work for first time director Reeves.

Related reading:
David Marchese's article on Keanu Reeves & Man of Tai Chi (The New York Times, Oct. 18, 2013)
Manohla Dargis's review of Man of Tai Chi (The New York Times, Oct. 31, 2013)