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.

How I Would Have Written the Ending to Peter Chan’s Wu Xia

Wu Xia (film)

Peter Chan's Wu Xia

MASSIVE SPOILERS – DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN PETER CHAN’S WU XIA

I am a diehard loyal Donnie Yen fan. I was a fan before most people, since the Fist of Fury TV series days. It’s unfortunate because he peaked late to the love of mass audiences but the definite Donnie Yen works are all the films before he struck gold with Ip Man. Films such as Legend of the WolfSPL and Flashpoint will remain among my all-time personal favorite martial arts films. Flashpoint is the ultimate achievement in fight choreography. Yen always maintained his own style of choreography, stressing that it should be realistic and grounded in martial arts techniques. The speed and force of hits in Yen choreography are always the highlight of his fight scenes.

Speaking of which, I’m also a Takeshi Kaneshiro fan. He is a very smart actor that nobody ever gives him credit for because presumably he’s too good looking. He’s versatile (he can play drama, sing, and do comedy) and always brings up interesting characterizations to the table. In the beginning stages of shooting Wu Xia, he opted to perform his character in a Sichuan accent, which totally constructed a new layer to his detective character. With the snotty reaction of non-Mandarin actors speaking mandarin in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (which inadvertently lead to Cantonese actors being dubbed in the Mandarin releases)  has no Chinese actor since attempted an accent. The stresses, tones and built-in emotionality of a Sichuan accent made his character more comical and quirky and in my opinion helped us see the intense quirks of his character. This film must be watched in its mandarin version to fully enjoy Kaneshiro’s performance.

So you can understand the excitement I had for Wu Xia when it was said that these two actors were casted together in the same movie.

I rather enjoyed the film. It brought some new colors to the wuxia genre. It contains the best Donnie Yen acting performance. Jimmy Wang is genuinely scary as the villain. I think Takeshi Kaneshiro is snubbed at the Asian Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards. As much as I enjoyed the film, the filmmaker in me, thinks the third act could have been much better polished to be something great.

So let’s begin with a PLOT SYNOPSIS (feel free to skip if you remember the story):

The film is set in 1917 in a post-Qing Dynasty era, at Liu Village on the border of Yunnan, China. Liu Jin Xi (played by Donnie Yen) lives with his wife Yu (played by Tang Wei) and two children, works as a paper maker in Liu Village. One day, two bandits rob a general store. Liu Jin Xi, who happens to be in the store, gets into a brawl in an attempt to protect the storeowner. He kills the bandits and is branded a hero in his village.

Detective Xu Baijiu (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro) is sent to investigate the case and discovers that one of the dead bandits was Yan Dongsheng, who is among the government’s ten most wanted fugitives. How can a simple commoner manage to take down the two most wanted fugitives? Through an accessment of the crime scene and an autopsy, all of the clues conclude that Liu Jin Xi is an expert martial artist. He’s able to induce brain hemorrhaging by hitting their Vague nerve and alter his weight with his Qi (a scientific explanation for ‘flying skills’ in the wu xia genre). Through many trials of investigation, Xu Baijiu finds out that Liu Jin Xi is really Tang Long – the second-in-command of the 72 Demons, a group of vicious and bloodthirsty warriors of Tangut minority descent trying to avenge the destruction of their people, who brutally murdered a butcher’s family (of Han descent) in Jingzhou ten years ago. Liu Jin Xi walks Xu out to the forest and instead of killing him, Liu spares him. Liu hopes Xu will let him go. Xu immediately returns to the county office to obtain an arrest warrant for Tang Long.

The magistrate delays issuing the warrant, citing lack of evidence while actually demanding a bribe from Xu. Xu eventually obtains the bribe money from his estranged wife (played by Li Xiaoran), who blames him for causing her father’s suicide. After issuing the warrant, the magistrate informs the Master of the 72 Demons (played by Jimmy Wang, the original One-Armed Swordsman) on Tang Long’s whereabouts, hoping to receive a reward. The Master is offended and reveals that Tang is actually his son, and he kills the magistrate by severing his Vagus nerve.

The Master sends his Demon henchmen to Liu Village to capture Tang and burn down the place. While Xu and the constables are on their way there, the two Demon henchmen reach the village first and kill a villager to force Tang to acknowledge his identity. Tang can no longer control himself and he fights and kills the two assailants, one of whom is the Master’s wife (played by Kara Hui), also Tang Long’s mother.

Xu decides to help Tang Long, using his knowledge of physiology, he induces a fake death with Tang Long’s body so the 72 Demons will no longer harass him. When the Demons arrive they lament over Tang’s death, crying over his body. Xu knows that Tang cannot remain in his “death” state for any longer so he revives Tang. Tang severs his left arm in front of the Demons, announcing that he has formally broken ties with them by giving them his murderous hand. The Demons tell him to approach The Master, who is waiting for him at his home.

Tang Long goes home on a rainy evening to find the Master with Yu and his two children. The Master declares that he will let Tang go but he must take Xiaotian’s life as a fair trade off. Tang is enraged and he attacks the Master with a broadsword but to no avail, since the Master uses qigong to protect himself from the blade. Xu Baijiu infiltrates the house through a hatch and  weakens the Master’s defense during the fight by piercing his heel with an acupuncture needle from underneath the floor. The Master is angered and incapacitates Xu. Tang continues fighting but is quickly overpowered by the Master. Just as the Master prepares to kill Tang, Xu notices the needle still stuck in his heel and takes him by surprise, planting another needle in the Master’s neck. The Master is unfazed and mortally wounds Xu by slamming him hard to the ground. The top needle acts as a lightning rod, and in combination with the bottom needle acting as an earthing wire, the Master is charred by a lightning strike, killing him. Xu, with his dying breath, declares the case closed.

The ending scene of the film shows a now one-armed Tang Long heading off to work again. He says farewell to Yu and trails off to work.

Okay, onto MY SCREENWRITING IDEAS ABOUT WU XIA

Last chance not to spoil it for yourself! 

MY CRITIQUE OF THE ORIGINAL ENDING

My problem with the movie starts in the third act. It all begins with Liu Jin Xi chopping his own arm in front of the Demon lackeys.

Many will argue the Liu Jin Xi’s arm chopping to be a convention of the wu xia genre (though I don’t know where that has occured), it seems to come out-of-left field and out-of-character. The fact that it’s convention doesn’t bother me. Frankly, you can cut both his arms off (Donnie Yen is a kicker anyways), but it’s not justified by the character. The Tang Long character wakes up from his faked death amongst the 72 Demons, his father The Master, isn’t there. He is among lackeys! Why would he chop off his arm in front of them to trade for his freedom? They ultimately do not have the power to decide whether Tang Long can be let go or not. He chops his arm off and then the lackeys tell him he should see The Master as he is the decider. Wouldn’t you feel stupid in that moment if that happened to you?

The film’s major problem in the third act is that it ends with a deux ex machina. Yes, a lighting bolt is what kills the villain. The villain is set up to be so powerful that he is simply unbeatable by either protagonists, neither brains or brawn. An act of god comes in and kills off the Jimmy Wang character. And that’s where they got it wrong! It should be brains and brawn working together that beats The Master at the end.

And even if they beat The Master of the 72 Demons, the story hasn’t ended yet. Tang hasn’t even taken out the lackeys (the ones that cried over his fake death). They’re still alive and presumably around!

MY VERSION OF THE ENDING

Xu decides to help Tang Long, using his knowledge of physiology, they fake Tang Long’s death so the 72 Demons will no longer harass him. When the Demons arrive they lament over Tang’s death, crying over his body. Time runs out and Xu revives Tang before he dies from being in his “death” state too long. Tang fights the Demon lackeys with both hands, finally finishing off the leader, who tells him The Master (Jimmy Wang) is at his house waiting for him. Tang takes the lackey’s broadsword and heads home with Xu.

Tang Long goes home on a rainy evening to find the Master with Yu and his two children. The Master declares that he will let Tang go but he must take Xiaotian’s life as a fair trade off. Tang is enraged and he attacks the Master with a broadsword but to no avail, since the Master uses qigong to protect himself from the blade. The Master breaks off Tang Long’s left arm and gives him a speech about being a traitor to his clan, that he should haven’t joined the Han people and that he should have avenged the death of his people.

While this is going on, Xu Baijiu infiltrates the house through a hatch and weakens the Master’s defense during the fight by piercing his heel with an acupuncture needle from underneath the floor. The Master pulls Xu from underneath the boards and incapacitates him.

Tang takes the blade, continues fighting with one-arm but is quickly overpowered by the Master. Just as the Master prepares to kill Tang with one final blow, Xu plants several needles in the Master’s neck. The Master’s qigong defenses are totally taken down. Tang chops off his head with his blade.

Xu, with his dying breath, declares the case closed. We see Xu die as Yu and the kids come to Tang’s aid. We fade to black.

Some time later, a now one-armed Tang Long heads off to work again. He says farewell to Yu and trails off to work. We see the Liu Village being rebuilt.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So those are my thoughts! That just makes more sense to me. Tell me what you think!

And not that this would matter, but Harvey Weinstein, please don’t call this movie Dragon for the U.S. distribution. That’s a horrid title.