As the director of Man of Tai Chi, it comes as little surprise that Keanu Reeves is a pretty mellow guy. The martial-arts film, which follows a young fighter (played by Tiger Chen) whose tai chi skills are exploited by a rich, mysterious businessman (played by Reeves), is built from the foundations of balance, equilibrium and harmony, all qualities Reeves seems to have taken to heart as he stepped behind the camera for the first time. He apparently brings them to his interviews as well, evidenced by his smooth, unruffled recovery when a journalist’s question – mine, of course – is worded just poorly enough to be perceived as a veiled criticism.
Spinoff Online spoke with Reeves in Austin the day after Man of Tai Chi premiered at Fantastic Fest. In addition to fielding questions about the film’s curious combination of realism and martial-arts theatricality, he discussed his creative choices as a director, and offered his thoughts about what the feature has to say about tai chi, a fighting style that is just as powerful as others, even if it’s used much less frequently.
Spinoff Online: How does it feel to be the guy on the other side of the desk? You’re sort of the Agent Smith in Man of Tai Chi.
Keanu Reeves: I don’t know. Agent Smith was an agent who was not of his own making who gains a kind of independence. Donaka is independence – Donaka, for me, was the dark side, which means seeking control of others, manipulating, seduction for abuse, stealing. And I really enjoyed playing him.
The movie reminded me of many classic martial-arts films, as well as more modern ones. Was there a particular era, or a style of martial-arts filmmaking, that inspired you?
I think for me, it was all of the experiences I’ve had personally and professionally – martial-arts films that I’ve seen, and working on The Matrix. It was my only really kung fu experience, but they’ve all gone into that. But I think the only overriding thing was when we would talk about an experience in the past, it was like, well, what can we do for this story? How can we make it modern, make it different? What are the things we’re aspiring to? So, interweaving tai chi into the story, into a metaphor, analogy, fable, trying to make action scenes be dramatic scenes, character development scenes, and so just cinematically, treating them differently, through the editorial content, choreography. So I guess it’s just kind of born how all art is, sometimes – taking what you’ve experienced in the past and what do you make from your feeling and your thought in the moment? So there was no one era or one movie. But we looked at a lot of them.
You’ve worked with a lot of directors with very distinctive visual styles. Where did you draw the line between functionality and something maybe more artistic?
I think the film plays a lot with the fourth wall, which is a theatrical kind of depiction. But basically, interaction between the audience watching the film and the film itself. So we have a lot of characters looking close to the lens, into the lens, we have a scene where a character actually hits the camera out of the way. We deal with a lot of perspectives, I feel with subjective and objective, there’s a lot of different cinema, so there are a lot of shots that are all in one. There’s static shots, there’s crane shots, there’s a lot of kinetic movement, handheld, fixed-camera, lots of double cuts, triple cuts, and then scenes where there’s no cut. There’s two-shots. I really feel like the film had no rules, and it could absorb a lot of different cinematic styles and storytelling and editing, music, that hopefully had a consistency that got absorbed and you just went along with the story so they didn’t make them flashy. Like I love the shot in the scene with Tiger and his master and he’s talking about what he’s done to fix the temple, and he just walks out right up into the lens. There are lots of crushing foreground, backgrounds, and things like that.
The genre has a rich history of theatricality. Where did you draw the line between telling a story that was realistic as opposed to something that had a more heightened or cinematic feel as we’re watching it?
The fights didn’t feel like they had cinema to you?
No, I mean more in terms of the drama, where in classic martial-arts films the performances might be elevated. How realistic a story did you want this to be? It wasn’t a criticism.
No, it’s OK – it’s fine. It’s OK if you felt like there wasn’t, obviously. But hopefully, there you felt like you were watching a real fight, but then there’s also the lin kong palm, where you see the master throw the super-powered chi punch, transferring energy. So there was heightened moments, as well as realistic fighting. Like the tournament stuff, we didn’t under-crank it or anything. So it’s all 24-frame or above. Yeah, so I guess it really could turn into just being more of a drama and following a character, and putting the viewer in the place of the experience of the fights.
Tiger Chen: For me, what we would do is I would want to make it feel like tai chi is real fighting, like traditional kung fu or other martial arts, and fighting in this world, fighting in the modern world against these different styles. But also, like Keanu says, we’d keep the drama part – like when the chi comes out, finally. And maybe it’s hard to see in real life, but we want that mix – it’s higher, but I believe that after many years, a master can do that. But not these days (laughs).
What was the most important thing you wanted to communicate about the philosophy of tai chi through this film in addition to its beautiful choreography?
Chen: Tai chi has a unique, different style – they have soft and they have hard, fast and slow, so not many martial artists have that kind of stuff. But in terms of life, you have a dark side and a light side. So that’s why we picked tai chi – there’s a lot of philosophy we could play with, and also in martial arts.
Reeves: I think for me, the strongest of the many threads, colors of it, was the idea of power and control, and even beyond that meditation and thoughtfulness. The application of the practice of tai chi. But I didn’t just want to make it tai chi-specific, but more about life – that in the decisions we make, how do we apply our thought to them and think them through, for the benefit of ourselves and others, as opposed to devaluing or corrupting or using and abusing others in a culture of interpersonal relationships.
Man of Tai Chi opens Nov. 1 in the United States.
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