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 Chi, for 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 Constantine, A 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.