Man of Tai Chi by Keanu Reeves

Man of Tai Chi by Keanu Reeves

Man of Tai Chi by Keanu Reeves

A young martial artist’s unparalleled Tai Chi skills land him in a highly lucrative underworld fight club.

Man of Tai Chi tells the age-old martial arts tale of a student devoting himself to an art, he gets too extreme, loses his way and has to find himself again.  It’s simple, well-paced, and communicates martial arts philosophy.

Tiger Chen holds his own as the breakout martial arts lead. His Tai Chi movements are beautiful. The core of his charisma is that he is a real human being with vulnerabilities. He is not preening for the camera in a showy or narcissistic manner (ahem Andy On, Wu Jing…) and plays his scenes earnestly.  Does Tiger Chen fit the description of a leading man? I don’t know, but it’d be nice to see more of him in future roles.

As for the supporting cast, Karen Mok fares better when she’s required to be loud and peppy. Silent performances aren’t her forte. Simon Yam is collecting a cheque and there’s nothing wrong with that. Qing Ye makes an adorable love interest. Iko Uwais from The Raid: Redemption (my review here) makes a nice cameo as a fighter. Yu Hai is charismatic as Tiger’s Tai Chi master, the dramatic scenes between Tiger and him were engaging and form the heart of the story.

The comedy gags in Cantonese spoken by the Hong Kong policemen actually do work. I laughed, though I worry how the gags will play as subtitles for English-speaking audiences. It’s like Reeves found a way to seep into the culture. That’s a thing that really impressed me with Man of Tai Chifor a film set in China that’s directed by a foreign director, it remains true to the culture. There’s no Orientalist gaze on Chinese culture, or a laundry-list showcase of the tourist hotspots. Mainlanders speak Mandarin, and people in Hong Kong speak Cantonese. There’s no misrepresentation here. I love how the film shows that many Chinese people are bilingual these days.

Tai Chi is a difficult martial art to capture on film. The idea of countering a hard energy with a soft energy is something you can only feel when you’re practicing the martial art, it’s a hard thing to see and be a part of as a bystander. It’s difficult to locate where the skill of the fight is. Previous cinematic attempts at Tai Chi, such as Jet Li’s The Tai Chi Master or Yuen Wah in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, have solved this problem by exaggerating Tai Chi to a cartoonish degree. Yuen Woo Ping executes this wonderfully and finds the right assortment of other martial art styles to fully test the limits of Tai Chi. Tiger Chen fights his opponents in the air, rolls on the ground, uses objects and the surrounding environment. There are no quick cuts hiding pulled punches and I love that. The fights are covered in wide shots with real martial artists and anybody can follow whats going on.

Contrary to popular belief, I sincerely do not think Keanu Reeves is a bad actor. I’m a fan. There’s a great article online by Kate Ronnebolm called Keanu Reeves is a Queer Superhero that aptly analyzes his success as a movie star. It says the reason Reeves has lasted this long is because he possesses a pensive quality, like he’s constantly reflecting upon himself and his surroundings. This has served his roles in ConstantineA Scanner Darkly, and Neo from The Matrix. I agree with this point, Reeves owns pensive. I think his performances have varied depending on the director’s ability to capture that quality on camera.

That all said, unfortunately Reeves is the own worst part of his own movie. I take no issue with his performance in Man of Tai Chi, but casting himself as the main villain meant that he is the final boss of his own kung fu movie. After 90 minutes of seeing Tiger Chen beating numerous opponents of varying styles, there simply is no way I can believe that Keanu can beat Tiger Chen. The film doesn’t provide any assistance as there’s no establishing scene showcasing Keanu’s character’s fighting abilities early in the story. For example, the final henchman that fights Tony Jaa in Ong Bak is obviously physically inferior to Jaa in real life, but the story makes him the more superior fighter by stating it beforehand. I would have been fine with even that. The end climatic fight is stiff and awkward; it’s obvious that Keanu didn’t have time to train with his directing duties.

That said, there is still a lot to like. And perhaps I like Man of Tai Chi more for intellectual reasons rather than its final result. But I have seen too many recent Chinese martial arts films that don’t star martial artists in them, but rather pretty boy actors just dancing around trying to look good in their own money-making vehicles. That’s just boring to me. I would rather see a film that’s trying something ambitious and fall short than make something that’s vacuous and faceless. Even with a disappointing climatic fight, the heartbeat of Man of Tai Chi is what won me over. I don’t’ know if Keanu Reeves want to keep directing in the future, but this is a good debut film.

The Lone Ranger by Gore Verbinski

The Lone Ranger by Gore Verbinksi

Native American warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice.

What really interested me in seeing The Lone Ranger was reading the Native Appropriations blog, which has been very vocal about the film’s cinematic misrepresentation of Native Americans. I have felt similar dissatisfaction with Chinese misrepresentation in Hollywood films in the past. This is not my fight, and my opinion probably wouldn’t matter much in this regard because I am not Native American. This is not something for me to be offended by or to tell other people that they should be offended by it or not. I do, however, believe that misrepresenting somebody’s culture in a medium as wide-spreading as film can be damaging by building a false misleading impression. So I wanted to be a witness while this discussion was ongoing.  So here goes…

The film is way too long. Mostly because of the Lone Ranger character is set up antithetically to what the audience wants to see – a triumphant hero. Armie Hammer, as proven in other films, is a capable actor. But this clumsy, nerdy, somewhat unlikable version of John Reid just doesn’t justify the running time. The intended arc for John Reid was that he starts off believing wholeheartedly in the law, the belief is then shattered and then he learns that to give justice, he must provide the justice himself. Verbinski spends way too long at phase one and it takes two hours before we arrive to phase two. In between that time the audience is just waiting for John Reid, a very inactive character, to change.

Johnny Depp has said that in playing Tonto, he hopes to change the past cultural misrepresentations of Native Americans on film. This hasn’t been brought up, but Johnny Depp previously played a Native American in a film he directed called The Brave ( I wonder what Native Americans thought of that film). The Brave actually was closer to accomplishing this very goal by presenting present-day Native Americans that were living in harsh conditions and it told a story about a father trying to help his family to escape said conditions. Marlon Brando, who has also been trying to make a film about the Native American condition for years, makes a cameo in it. So how can Depp, who previously made a film that was considerate to the Native American condition make an aesthetic choice that would further mystify and misrepresent their image? It’s inconsistent with his intended goal.

Depp’s Tonto performance, however, is fun to watch and drives the whole movie. Depp brings his usual tricks to comedy, namely a lot of mugging and facial reactions. This is why I think people are saying he’s doing Captain Jack Sparrow again. Comparatively, Tonto is a darker, more introverted character and more prone to solving his problems with violence than deception.

The Tonto costume looks cool but I am of two minds about it. On one hand, I wish this costume was really authentically Native American so there’s no political problem. But on the other hand, it is not difficult to design a cool looking costume with actual Native American attire. The filmmakers probably should have done the latter and dodged a bullet. The concept comes from a painting that was drawn by a Caucasian artist that wasn’t referring to anything authentically Native American. In the painting, a crow soars over the Native American warrior’s head, which Depp has taken literally, making the crow a headdress for Tonto. The film justifies this by establishing that Tonto is an outcast, and therefore is able to make up his own set of beliefs with the white face paint and crow headdress. I honestly do not know how to feel about that but Johnny Depp’s Tonto is the most entertaining part of The Lone Ranger. I enjoyed it, but it feels like I shouldn’t be enjoying it.

The production design is impressive; you can see literally where the budget went. The choice to shoot anamorphic was a great one; it transports the audience into the beautiful landscapes of the Old West. I read an article that argued how Westerns always underperform in the American box office, I don’t know why that’s the case. After all, Westerns are distinctly an American film genre.

The two major action set pieces, one in the opening and one at the film’s climax, is where Gore Verbinski fares best. The William Tell Overture kicks in and completely energizes these action scenes. I completely dropped thinking about misrepresentation, and just went along with it. They are heavily designed in a way that evokes Verbinski’s previous film MousetrapThe set pieces are an exhilarating thrill ride, and I wish the film would have just focused on delivering the fun.

For every goal The Lone Ranger tries to achieve with the material, the filmmakers have set up something antithetical going against it. The idea of making a commercial summer blockbuster movie out of an ugly part of American history is a noble one and I applaud it. There are scenes that show what has happened to the Natives that was genuinely tragic. The final result does fall short from balancing such a heavy subject with its fun factor. Verbinski shouldn’t be blamed completely as it looks like the studio’s marketing team checking boxes as well. It doesn’t accomplish the goal of changing how Native Americans are perceived in the media, perhaps the best thing is it’s gotten people talking about the subject.

In the end, the beginning and the end of The Lone Ranger is a lot of fun, but a lot of fat could have been trimmed from the middle. Even the bookending device with an aged Tonto telling the story to a boy is extraneous and adds a post-modern layer onto the film that continually takes you out of the story. I have no problem with downplaying the Lone Ranger to make Tonto a more central character, but it’s overdone. The Lone Ranger is just not an interesting protagonist, and the central story is about John Reid. It’s like the filmmakers got confused with that and couldn’t handle the material with discipline. I imagine if I saw it as a child, I’d just fast-forward through the fun parts.

Before Midnight by Richard Linklater

Before Midnight by Richard Linklater

Before Midnight continues the story of Jesse and Céline nine years after the events of Before Sunset, they are now a couple with twin daughters spending the final day of a summer holiday in Greece.

For the first time after the first two films, in Before Midnight we finally get to see Jesse and Celine actually in a relationship. Ethan Hawke in an interview on KCRW’s The Treatment recalled a behind-the-scenes story of how the steadi-cam operator got upset shooting a scene in Before Midnight where Jesse gazes upon a young girl in a bikini, stating that Jesse would never do that to Celine. That is key. We feel like we know Jesse and Celine deeply. These characters mean something to us, whether we value how real they seem or romanticize their relationship from the last two films.

I’ll give you an example. From having watched Jesse and Celine converse for two films now, I love that I am familiar with all their little ticks and peccadilloes. I know Celine hides her face with her long hair when she’s uncomfortable and that she hates it when Jesse interrupts her romantic fancies with realism. I know Jesse likes getting his money’s worth and often changes the subject when he doesn’t want to talk about something. These characters mean something to us, whether we value how real they seem or romanticize their would-be relationship from the last two films. The things they do and say have a more profound effect on us as an audience. Richard Linklater understands this and uses it to his advantage.

Never does it feel like Hawke or Delphy are acting. They just are these characters. I don’t know if it’s because they’re the writers of their own dialogue, their mutual camaraderie with each other and director Richard Linklater or all of the above. There’s a magic that’s still present after all these years. I use the word “magic” because I can’t pinpoint its mechanics. But when Jesse and Celine get talking, it feels like it’s happening right before me.

The conversations are the spectacle. On the surface, the characters are just telling interesting stories or giving their 2 cents on a given topic, but the conversations are designed with multiple arcs, callbacks and continually suggest and build character. The group dinner scene is a lot of fun as we see several characters converse with Jesse and Celine for the first time. It was a change in format and I found myself wanting to chime in and give my two cents on various topics. The climatic hotel scene is an impressive dialogue set piece, and it accurately captures how couples fight. They’re both fighting to stop themselves from having the last word, but can’t help saying it anyway.

If you haven’t seen the first two, I’d suggest go seeing them first. Before Midnight does work as a standalone film, but watching it standalone will cut off the journey of these two characters. By default, this third film would just mean less. This is a good third movie. I cannot help but see all three films as one story now. I almost don’t want to see a fourth film.

Unlike a lot of love stories where it concentrates on the pursuit of love, Before Midnight refreshingly focuses on the means to sustaining a relationship. It’s never tonally bitter or cynical. The film celebrates love by just presenting the simple truth, which includes the full spectrum of the sour, bitter and sweet. I love that Richard Linklater is using these iconic characters to say something profound about love, relationships and life in your forties. It’s a risky move considering where the second film left off, but he accomplished it beautifully and delivered a earnest message. I was scared, touched and at the end I felt like I saw two old friends and learned something.

 

The Place Beyond The Pines by Derek Cianfrance

The Place Beyond The Pines by Derek Cianfrance

A motorcycle stunt rider turns to robbing banks  to provide for his lover and their newborn child. This decision puts him on a collision course with an ambitious rookie cop navigating a department ruled by a corrupt detective. The sweeping drama unfolds over fifteen years as the sins of the past haunt the present days lives of two high school boys wrestling with the legacy they’ve inherited.

Ryan Gosling gives the silent minimalist performance as the motorcyclist Luke Glanton. It’s slowly becoming to be his trademark, and justifiably so because he’s great at it. Bradley Cooper appeared on Inside The Actor’s Studio as a guest, where it was said he was the most promising acting talent of his graduating year at Pace University. Bradley Cooper is officially starting to show that talent now. It wasn’t displayed in his previous projects. Dane DeHaan is a promising versatile talent. He really sells torture well. I look forward to seeing him as Harry Osbourne in the next The Amazing Spider-man movieBen Mendelsohn and Ray Liotta both sell slimy well. It’s a good cast and they all deliver, but they all have accomplished similar roles in other past projects.

The Place Beyond The Pines‘s core theme, due to the nature of the plot structure, will not be clear to the audience till the latter half. The story makes a shift and changes its central character. In that very moment, to really enjoy the film, the audience has to let go, take a step back and view the film on a larger canvas. Characters becomes archetypes and plot becomes saga. The sins of the father pass onto the son and we see the cause-and-effect echo from generation to generation.

For me, I took that step back and all of a sudden I was pondering on bigger themes. Instead of thinking about bank robbers stealing money or police battling corruption, I thought about karma, the butterfly effect and the idea of violence perpetuating violence. At the final shot of the film, I was moved. It was a poignant, beautiful and poetic ending. I was impressed how the narrative touched me with its subtext by completely divorcing it with its supertext. This gambit the film plays on the audience is probably what will divide them. It doesn’t help that the supertext of the film utilizes familiar genre conventions; at times it’s a heist movie, other times it’s a police corruption movie. That might throw some people off but that’s what I loved about it. It was a bold narrative move and it was well played. Derek Cianfrance, well done!

Bruce Lee: Kung Fu ‧ Art ‧ Life Exhibition

BruceLeeMuseum

Ever since watching Bruce Lee beat henchmen with a pair of nunchukus on TV in Enter the Dragon, I instantly became a fan ever since. Aside from being familiar with all his films, I have read his books, notes, poetry, and even attempted to practice Jeet Kune Do moves directly from his hand-drawn sketches. In my view, Bruce Lee is culturally significant, and the way he lived his life deserves to be continually discussed and studied. Upon leaving this exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, I realized I had a lot to say but nowhere to say it. So I’ve decided to write about my thoughts of the exhibit here…

Bruce Lee’s mind is fascinating and it is the number one thing people tend to overlook due to his accomplished physicality. He was forward thinking, worldly, a great speaker and a good actor. I remember seeing the full version of the Bruce Lee interview on the The Pierre Morgan Show. I was mesmerized by how Lee spoke, that he was perpetually shifting mental states. He would go from being a deep philosopher, to a charming movie star, to a cocky martial artist and then a self-deprecating jokey man within sentences. His eyes and vocal tones would change and he spoke with his entire body. I walked into this exhibit wanting to gain more insight about Bruce Lee’s character, how he lived his life and how Lee’s mind worked beyond his writings or films, of which I’m already familiar with. Fortunately, I got all that.

One noteworthy panel was a letter Lee wrote to his wife Linda from Switzerland. Roman Polanski paid Bruce Lee to train him in Switzerland. It didn’t seem a lot of training was done. In the letter, Lee wrote he detested going out with Polanski clubbing nightly and missed his wife and his kids a lot. The letter was written quite romantically. It showed a man that really valued his time and wasn’t interested in hedonistic pleasures. There’s currently a Johnny Walker commercial playing on Hong Kong television that stars a CGI-version of Bruce Lee on the Hong Kong rooftops reciting his “Be like water” speech. As rad as it was to see a computer rendition of an aged present-day-if-he-lived-on Bruce Lee, he never would have done such a commercial. The man doesn’t even drink alcohol! He would think it’s a wasteful thing to put into his system. The Polanski letter proves this.

Another panel featured an American magazine article that focused on how Bruce Lee married a Caucasian woman and the fact that their children were half-Caucasian half-Chinese. The reporter asked Lee if he intended to raise them as Caucasian or Oriental, with the infinitesimally subtle implication that his mixed children are soon-to-be outcasts in either society (Call me racially sensitive, but where else can that question possibly come from?). Lee gave a very simple answer (I’m paraphrasing), stating that he intends to teach them both Western and Oriental culture so that they can respect and draw the best parts of both. That struck a chord in the third culture child inside me. Even though some of his films had nationalistic sentiments (though I’d argue he was fighting against racial profiling), he was proud to be Chinese but he was never nationalistic. Similar to how he never believed in one set style to approaching a task, he didn’t categorize people by race neither. Everybody was a human being to him. Lee wanted the world to go beyond racial boundaries and he was already the living embodiment of that, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with him. The sad thing is, we haven’t caught up yet.

The only geek out I had was seeing the notes Lee made for the final Coliseum fight in Way of the Dragon with Chuck Norris. Every move for every shot was written out in detail. This level of dedication was prevalent in his early years, as displayed in his notebook for Cha Cha dancing, where he too wrote out every single dance move so that he can be totally responsive to his dance partner. Something that stuck with me was Lee’s handwriting, it was in a graceful cursive that was evenly spaced out with no hard stresses, which suggests that he didn’t write in a hurried fashion (I know, I’m psycho).

There are five 20-minute video panels showing interviews with his family, relatives, and people in the Hong Kong movie industry who have worked with him. The videos each focus on different topics, like Lee’s personality, his work ethic and views on martial arts. A stuntman said Lee would personally pay for the hospital bills for their on set injuries, something that no movie star has ever done or has done since. Lee’s student Dan Inosanto tells a story of how Bruce Lee celebrated his birthday by sidekicking him to the ground during a sparring session, brought out a birthday cake and sang him happy birthday. I suggest everybody watch those in their entirety for the anecdotes. My only criticism of the exhibit is how people mystify Bruce Lee’s death in the video interviews (and in general actually). It irks me in a distasteful way. People as a group dealing with somebody’s death together can really go to some odd places, it compounds and becomes a weird social hive-minded thing that’s more about them dealing it more than the individual’s death itself. It tips beyond being mournful or respectful and borderlines on trivializing the event, like bad gossip. Why does it have to be a mythic mysterious end to an epic legend? Why can’t it just be an unfortunate accident?

Finally I walked through the hallway displaying looped excerpts from his 5 films. As I was shuffling by the Way of the Dragon display, I heard a child scream “Wow!”. The child was marveling at a clip showcasing Bruce Lee’s kicking ability, specifically the sheer force that cannonaded the film extra holding dear life on a kicking pad into a pile of garbage cans. That little moment struck me, to witness a mirrored version of how I discovered Bruce Lee years ago as a child watching him on TV. I reflected upon the deeper ways Bruce Lee has impacted me now and looking back I too thought, “Wow! It’s actually possible to admire a person on this many levels.”

I recommend people go see this exhibition if you’re in Hong Kong. However much you know about Bruce Lee, it doesn’t matter. He poured deep thought and passion into everything he did, whether that was shooting a movie, training himself to throw a faster side kick, writing a touching letter to his wife or chatting with a friend. There’s something deeper for everybody to discover because he is somebody you can admire on multiple levels. Bruce Lee is forever inspiring to me and I believe he will be for anybody of any age from anywhere.

 

Dragonball Z: Battle of the Gods by Masahiro Hosoda

Dragonball Z: Battle of the Gods by Masahiro Hosoda

Dragonball Z: Battle of the Gods takes place several years after the titanic battle with Majin Buu. Bills, the God of Destruction, hearing that a Saiyan has defeated Freeza, awakens from a long slumber. Bills tracks down Son Goku and challenges him to a fight…

I read Dragonball Z as a manga. I didn’t watch the series as an anime nor does the anime bring any justice to the story. Anybody who jokes that the fights in the Dragonball Z anime go on forever, I actually agree with you. But also I respectfully refer you to the manga. I never got around to seeing Dragonball GT because Akira Toriyama didn’t write it, which it is precisely why I am both excited and unsure when I heard about this movie. Imagine if J.K. Rowling added an extra chapter between the ending and the epilogue in Harry Potter, how would the fans feel? What could a new Dragonball Z movie possibly mean? Is Toriyama going to continue and end the saga again? Or is it a mere trip down memory lane? Most of all, which one would I prefer? I am of two minds.

Dragonball Z: Battle of the Gods is two thirds nostalgic fan service and one third story expansion. The Z Warriors all return but unfortunately do not have much to do besides Goku and Vegeta. Every character gets to have their little moment, but these moments are all exactly pitch-perfect to their characterizations. Their interplay is what makes it fun. Vegeta does some things that I would never dream of, and he ends up being the most engaging character. In the end, it all hangs on Goku to solve the conflicts singlehandedly and for that he comes off more bland without assistance.

There’s never an impending sense of threat, partly because the story automatically connects to the epilogue of Dragonball Z. Bills the Destroyer is no Frieza or Cell. There’s nothing as dramatic as Krillin’s death on planet Namek or a young Gohan falling onto Vegeta in monkey form. But it’s an unfair comparison as there is no time to properly build Bills up as a proper villain with any personal vendetta involved. Bills is threatening only because he is physically powerful. Toriyama is aware of his limitations and does what he can.

To Toriyama’s credit, Battle of the Gods properly expands the Dragonball universe with its new villain, establishes a higher realm of power and Goku achieves a new ability at the end. I would have liked more exploration on Goku’s newfound ability and how it works. But again, it’s glossed over from the lack of screen time. There’s no time for a huge arc, Goku isn’t allowed to fall immeasurably, rise and come back as immensely as we all want to see. Nor is there enough of time to kill any of the Z Warriors and resurrect them at the end. That would only be feasible if Toriyama revamped the series, but that doesn’t seem to be the plan.

Before the movie started, I scanned the theater audience. I was surprised to see there were many 40-year-old parents bringing 10-year-old kids, and only a moderate amount of people in their late 20’s like me that would have properly caught the Dragonball trend in the mid-90’s. The film’s first act contains a comedic set piece that runs for ten minutes and it’s here where the film won me over. It made me self-conscious at first when the children started filling the theater with laughter. They were laughing at every single gag and the thing was I was laughing as well. And in laughing, it sparked memories. I’m remembered how funny Dragonball used to be. The first 4 issues of the comic book were immensely perverted and it acted as an early version of sex ed. In that moment, I let go. Yes, the Z Warriors don’t have much to do, but their little character moments had me cackling like a fiend. Yes, Bills the Destroyer is no Frieza or Cell but I love that that there’s a new villain for Goku to fight. Yes, there’s no real impending sense of threat but I totally forgot about that and immersed myself into this world again. I didn’t care anymore. Every time a character transformed into Super Saiyan or every time two opposing ki blasts had a tug-of-war, my mouth still dropped in sheer awe. I was transformed  back into the 10 year-old chubby boy who was aching to buy the next Dragonball manga at the local newsstand, wishing that I can fly and fire Kamehameha blasts at school bullies.

So, is this movie mostly fan service? Yes, my laughing and overall enjoyment is more deeply rooted in the series than the children in the audience. If they wanted to get into Dragonball Z, they probably shouldn’t start with this installment. In the end, does it really matter that film is fan service? No, because I would have enjoyed it equally as a kid anyways.