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.

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.

 

Ip Man: The Final Fight by Herman Yau

Ip Man: The Final Fight by Herman Yau

Ip Man: The Final Fight chronicles the later life of Wing Chun Grandmaster Ip Man.

The most interesting aspect between Herman Yau-Anthony Wong collaborations is that their partnership had its roots in Hong Kong Category III horror. Ebola Syndrome is still one of the most disgusting movies I have ever seen and been guiltily entertained by. Forget Outbreak or Contagion, Ebola Syndrome was a far more disturbing movie about a viral outbreak. Forget Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Wong truly played a disturbing sociopath in that movie. The point is: they’re not afraid to delve into the gritty, the ugly and the disgusting.

Set against the big commercial movie cog machine and the Ip Man franchise, the majority of Yau-Wong penchant for grittiness is diluted and only some of it remains in Ip Man: The Final Fight. It is that essence of the grittier and the uglier sides of Ip Man that makes out for the more interesting parts in Ip Man: The Final Fight, but it’s also the film’s major weakness because it never treads far enough from familiar territory.

What the film ends up being more like tonally is a combination of the Wilson Yip-Donnie Yen Ip Man films and Bruce Lee My Brother, where it is loosely glossing over the details of the grandmaster’s life and dramatically punching up the action so it can allow for fight scenes, but also providing a retro-gaze of Hong Kong accompanied with a celebrity guest-list cameos.

For example, it’s been said that Ip Man sported an opium habit. The concept is telegraphed but never truly explored. Another example is Hong Kong actor Liu Kai Chi gives a cameo as Ip Man’s friend who is suffering from poverty. They start what might be a potentially interesting storyline but it never finishes itself. Much of the film is like that.

There are about several subplots running through the story and they all end up as separate vignettes that do not rise above the sum of it’s parts. For a biopic drama, that’s a problem because it does not provide an unified narrative goal. This is not an editing issue. The story was based on Ip Chun’s stories of his father and it is as if seemed like the screenwriter noted them down as told and the director literally shot them that way. So I attribute this issue to lazy writing. The retroactive voice-over device ends up killing a lot of the drama. The scene will be happening and the voice-over will cut in summing up the rest of the scene in past tense. It keeps glossing over by stating what happened instead of letting the audience experience what’s happening in the now.

Anthony Wong is very natural as Ip Man. He looks most like the real-life version of Ip Man and actually adopts a Foshan accent. He breathes many colors into the role and the scenes with Ip Man and his students is the heart of the film. Anthony Wong is pretty much the best thing about this movie and his performance alone is the price of admission.

Eric Tsang has a great supporting role as a Crane style master who befriends Ip Man. There is a self-referential joke where Tsang says being a ‘clan master’ (獎門人) is difficult, a reference to his famous television gameshow, that was self-serving and unnecessary. Tsang and Wong share an awesome fight together. Not a lot of people remember that Eric Tsang started out as a stuntman; the fight looks very authentic. They were really smashing their forearms together. Eric Tsang is a badass.

Something I noticed about the cinematography was there were way too many crane shots in this film. There’s a scene that ends on a connective moment between two characters and then it cuts to a crane shot backing away presenting a view of the entire rooftop set. I have a theory about this. In Hong Kong, booking a crane from a production house is a planned expense and usually you would require more crew members or more time to set up a crane shot. Production houses in the Mainland will give crews an entire film equipment package in their deals, which includes cranes and jibs. With the cheap labor and higher amount of crew members, a crane shot can be set up much faster in the Mainland. As a recent occurrence, a lot of Chinese productions lead by Hong Kong directors have recently been very crane shot-heavy. Hong Kong directors, this needs to stop. You have to remember to pull back every once and a while.

Just as a small footnote, I really hated the Bruce Lee cameo. Playing Bruce Lee in a film is by no means an easy feat but the actor they chose was abysmally awful. He made Bruce Lee look like a rich asshole sellout. It was not fun, nor did it work as a pop culture reference.

Overall, I enjoyed this film, but I do not think it works completely as a standalone piece. It seems to fit as the final piece to this whole line of Ip Man films. In a way, I can’t help it because they’ve made so many movies about Ip Man in such a short time.

With every film, I see a little more of who this man was, what his legacy was and it had me thinking about even what being a good teacher means. I still think The Grandmaster is the best Ip Man film. They really don’t need to make any more Ip Man movies. And if they do (and I think they are because I saw a poster for an Ip Man 3 with Donnie Yen), please do the story with Bruce Lee and get him right.

Related Reviews
The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai

Warrior by Gavin O’Connor

Warrior (2011 film)

Warrior by Gavin O’Connor

I have a confession to make: I love martial arts. I love martial arts movies. There’s nothing more primal than watching two people beating the shit out of each other. Warrior is a movie that understands this but earns that fun legitimately through the three lead performances. It works on these two levels.

Joel Edgerton brings genuine goodness to the film. His character Brendan Conlon is formerly-failed MMA fighter turned school teacher, the bank is taking his house and now he is fighting in the cage to keep his family together. And through being motivated by family, he becomes a better fighter. You root for him. You want him to win.

I’ve never seen Nick Nolte so raw and completely naked playing this broken old man trying to repair his regrets. The Nick Nolte-isms do not shortcut him. He’s earned that Oscar nomination, though I don’t think he’ll win this year.

Here’s why I think Tom Hardy is a great actor: he acts with his entire body. No, I’m not talking about his deltoids (though “Tom Hardy’s deltoids” completely earn another independent credit in this movie). It’s an fine-tuned, equally internal and external performance. Notice the way he grunts, the weight in his walk, how he speaks under his breath and the way he glares his eyes like he’s going to lose it any second. He’s not even human in this movie. He is a mythic beast. Let’s just say, the bat will be broken.

The fights themselves are exciting to watch because of four aesthetic reasons, 1) The drama works. We care. 2) The actors are doing it. The camera doesn’t do anything to hide a stuntman. 3) The fights happen in film time, not real time. They’re editing on dramatic beats. They’re not sticking to how real MMA fights play out, which most of the time is people hugging each other on the ground. (If you’ve seen Never Back Down, you know what I’m talking about.) They’re presented in a realistic fashion with the boring parts omitted. 4) You feel the pain of these fights. On a side note, I also enjoyed the dual training montage sequence. They’re acknowledging the origin of the DNA strain (uh.. Rocky, anybody?) and trying to evolve it into something of their own. I appreciated that.

This was probably the most fun I’ve had watching a movie this year. I have a soft spot for it.

That said, I’m a little jealous that Joel Edgerton pulled off a flying armbar. That took me months!