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.

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American Dreams in China by Peter Chan

American Dreams in China by Peter Chan

During the economic reform period of the 80’s, three friends bind together by a common ambition – to live the American dream.

The three leads Huang Xiao Ming, Deng Chao and Tong Dawei create a very believable camaraderie. It is possible to be happy for your friend doing well and envy him at the same time, and that is the central story between these three friends. Huang Xiao Ming brings his best performance thus far. He’s not busy preening for the camera and posing a pretty boy as I have seen in his past works. It’s partly the role itself as it asks Huang to start by playing a vulnerable teenage boy who eventually that ages into a man.

There’s a trend of using very fast cuts in Mainland comedies right now. It originated with Ning Hao’s 2006 heist comedy Crazy Stone – which drew its visual style from Guy Ritchie – and now it has officially embedded itself genetically as filmic grammar for Chinese comedic dialogue. There’s a scene where two of the friends had a fight and complain about each other individually with the third friend over a ping pong game. The cutting is so fast between conversation A and conversation B that it’s impossible for the audience to really feel what these characters are going through. These montages will happen every now and then to speed the story ahead. It’s zany for sure, but at times I wish they would let the scenes breathe instead of zeroing in for laughs.

That said, it’s smart on Peter Chan’s part of picking up on this trend and using it here because American Dreams in China is a Mainland Chinese story made for the Mainland audience. The content may prove more difficult with English-speaking audiences whom aren’t aware of the cultural context or why the 3 friends carry the values they do about America and the American Dream to laugh at it whole-heartedly.

Suffice to say, Chan balances the film well and it is impressive to see a Hong Kong director tune to a Mainland frequency. Best thing I can say about Peter Chan’s direction is that he is worldly. He doesn’t portray Americans as white devils, which makes things more interesting and engaging. American Dreams in China will connect with its audience, namely Chinese people who were born in the 80’s, and those people will enjoy it. Everybody else I am not so sure but this is a nice gem of a film nonetheless.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons by Stephen Chow

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons by Stephen Chow

The story of Xuanzang (also known as Tripitaka, played by Wen Zhang) and his beginnings as a demon hunter and develops a romance with a female demon hunter (played by Shu Qi).

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons marks the very first Stephen Chow directed movie without him acting in it. So, what can I properly expect from this movie? The idea of a Stephen Chow movie is always exciting. However, I was concerned that it might be the start of an new era in which Stephen Chow will only direct movies and not act in them anymore. For that, I was both excited and scared to see this film. But finally, I decided there probably wasn’t anything to expect and just walked in without expectations.

Fortunately, that ended up being the best way to seeing this movie. I ended up being really surprised and taken away by it.

It’s clear that Stephen Chow’s passions are now set into directing. He has improved a lot as a director; his films have become more cinematic experiences. There’s less reliance on comedic dialogue, more emphasis on telling a story with stronger imagery, and has an improved sense of setup and payoff. He’s much more interested in storytelling mechanics and more invested in where he can take an audience emotionally besides just laughs. With the way he structures some of his story, there’s a symbiotic relationship between comedy and tragedy that he’s very interested in exploring.

Wen Zhang delivers that exact balance between tragedy and comedy in his performance as Xuanzang. He is a charismatic leading man and he shoulders the film with both its funny and heartbreaking moments. When he was playing for humor, I laughed. When he was crying, I found it moving. I am buying him at every moment and he was playing me like a squeeze toy. The story gives a genuine pathos as he becomes the Xuanzang we know from the story.

Shu Qi is very affable in this role and it’s nice to see her play a character with more cartoonish sensibilities. I especially liked her psychotic expressions when she was killing off demons. And yes, I can see how hard it is to reject Shu Qi if she threw herself at you like she did in this movie.

Huang Bo is a fun Monkey King and makes a very engaging antagonist. This version of Monkey King is richly complex. It’s an interesting take on the character because it highlights a key point about Sun Wukong that’s often glossed over: He never had a choice to join Xuanzang on his journey to the west. The Monkey King goes only because he is tamed by the magical torture crown that’s he is forced to wear on his head. In this interpretation, he’s not completely good or evil. Huang Bo does not play it too over-the-top by enhancing the animalistic sensibilities. Instead, what really stuck with me was how he convincingly played the desperate pain of being trapped under a mountain for five centuries.

The film’s gags are executed with much discipline. The gags are zany but not random. They are all building character and moving the story forward each step of the way to it’s final conclusion. It’s masterful how Chow is able to use comedic moments to build towards moments of sadness and loss.

The film rehashes the theme song “Love of a Lifetime” by Lowell Lo in A Chinese Odyssey. The updated version is sung by Shu Qi. Not to hark on Shu Qi’s singing, but her cover of the song only echoes the power of Lowell Lo’s original version. It’s an eerie song that carries a tremendous sense of loss and feeling of love unreturned. If I had to describe it for non-Chinese speakers, it sounds like a lost soul calling out searching for his lover across a timeless netherworld. It fit very well with the theme of loving someone for 10,000 years in A Chinese Odyssey. Shu Qi’s version works for the goals of this film, but all it does is it plays the original version in my head.

Take a listen (Spoiler free to those who haven’t seen A Chinese Odyssey):

The good news is that’s about as much as Stephen Chow draws from A Chinese Odyssey. It would help to know the basic premise of Journey to the West but there’s absolutely no need to see A Chinese Odyssey to understand this film.

The cult popularity of A Chinese Odyssey in Mainland China, while rightfully earned, is appreciated out of it’s own context. Two key things that Mainland audiences love about A Chinese Odyssey is wrongfully credited to Stephen Chow. Firstly, the famous “10,000 years” monologue delivered by Stephen Chow in the film was originally written by Jeff Lau as a parody of the same line spoken by Takeshi Kaneshiro in Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (director Jeff Lau was Wong Kar Wai’s producer at Jet Tone Films). A fact that nobody remembers.

Second, a portion of the Stephen Chow’s funny dialogue in A Chinese Odyssey was modified for Mandarin and voiced by Mainland voice actor Shi Ban Yu. For example, the line “你真係無得頂呀你!” in Cantonese became the frequently quoted “哇靠!I服了You” in Mandarin. In the scene Stephen Chow’s character’s hometown is under a demon attack, and he’s betrayed by his own group of bandits. They play dead and escape, leaving Stephen Chow to be eaten by a spider demon. In Cantonese, the feeling of the line translates to “that was damn genius of you!”, the irony being that he admires their savvy, despite of being left to die by his own mates. In Mandarin, while the line is accurately translated in meaning, it becomes a gag about mixing English and Chinese together in the same sentence. You’re laughing only partly that Stephen Chow is being betrayed but more so surprised the fact that he has knowledge of the English language, something that you did not expect. The beloved classic witty lines that Mainlanders love from A Chinese Odyssey, while technically a translation, is a creative credit Stephen Chow didn’t earn.

These two things have been put to an end for Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. The film is shot completely in Mandarin with a Mandarin speaking cast and the “10,000 years” monologue is not directly referenced. It would have been easy for Chow to milk the nostalgia and heavily reference A Chinese Odyssey to no end. But Chow cuts no corners. This is the work of someone who really loves the source material and has managed to find something personal in it enough for legitimate reinterpretation. It’s a sincere effort by a filmmaker who wants to earn the love of his audience through playing by the rules by telling a real story. He does it tightly, refreshes an age-old tale that everybody knows (there were parts that I didn’t see coming that I should have) and wraps it up in 100 minutes.

The thought of no more Stephen Chow roles anymore aches me a bit but his presence is felt here. He has delivered a well-made film. Fortunately the film is done well  enough to help me get over my aching and  accept him now as only a film director.  I look forward to seeing him continually improve as a storyteller and I look forward to the next installment in this series.

Stephen Chow fans, the coast is clear! For anybody else, check it out! It’s a good solid movie to start off the new year.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate by Tsui Hark

Tsui Hark is always hit-and-miss with me. My favorite Tsui Hark films are Once Upon a Time in China 2 (the epic face off between Jet Li and Donnie Yen), Time and Tide (some insane action scenes) and Double Team. Yes, I said it. I love Double Team. It’s insane, crazy kitschy fun. Seriously, who could have thought the idea of casting Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Rodman and Mickey Rourke in a coloful action movie?

I saw this film back in December. I haven’t seen any incarnations of the Dragon Gate Inn films. I was aware it was a remake or re-imagining of the story and that it was going to be in 3D. I viewed in this interest of seeing where Chinese special effects have gone and what Tsui Hark would do with such a huge production.

Tsui Hark is an imaginative filmmaker but often is undisciplined. He’ll imagine fascinating places and sets up great set pieces but he often wants to do too much. It all ends up creating thrilling sensations in parts than telling a story from beginning to finish as a whole. The worst example being The Legend of Zu, where the visuals and the world was interesting, there was nothing remotely emotional for me to hold on to. Eventually, it goes so long, I just tired out and tap out. As a side note, I thought it was very smart to have him helm the first third of Triangle (the three’s collaboration between him, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To).

I’m sad to say, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is Tsui Hark going way too far with his imagination again. There is no story or much character to speak of. Jet Li is here to fight, he does not get a full character at all. Zhou Xun is a charming solid actress but she does not have much to do here. She breathes humanity into the story every time she’s present but there’s not enough of her or humanity. There’s a gag with Aloys Chen Kun playing two roles (as both the villain and a lovable oaf) that goes on way too long. Shake this film and half an hour would have fallen off. I am not a punitive or bitter person, but let’s call a spade a spade.

The 3D looked awful. The CG was very fake at times. I’m never one to niptick special effects but I would have forgiven it if there was something else there to distract me. It was very forgettable. I honestly cannot recall a particular scene or sequence worth mentioning.

The Mainland Chinese film market is on the rise. There’s a lot of money being thrown around to played with. I just think it should be executed with some discipline, like in Bodyguards and Assassins in where the epic scale of production was used to enhance a story.

Seriously, I would have wanted to see Double Team re-released in 3D. Or heck, give me Time and Tide 2 in 3D. Now that would be something!

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