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.

Retrospective Review: Double Team by Tsui Hark

Double Team by Tsui Hark

There comes a time for every filmgoer when you like a bad movie that nobody likes. You can’t really pinpoint why you like them and it’s a bit embarrassing. Nobody really cares why you liked it because nobody wants to talk about a bad movie. You cannot exactly defend the movie because you see why it’s bad but you feel obligated to point out what’s fun about it. I’ve been wanting to write about films that aren’t new releases. This seems like a good opportunity to write about a film that I enjoy and really want to have a discussion about. So here are my thoughts on the 1997 Tsui Hark action film film Double Team

Let me set it up the historical context. It was 1997. There was a rising trend of Hong Kong action cinema in the West that came in the form of VHS, thanks to the long gone Blockbuster video store. A mutual interest begun to develop; Hollywood producers wanted to inject a new style into American action movies and Hong Kong directors were curious and excited about working with Hollywood resources. John Woo was the first Hong Kong director to be hired for a Hollywood project, and later Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark followed. Coincidentally, all three worked with Jean Claude Van Damme in their Hollywood debuts. This trend eventually died when the Hong Kong directors weren’t that curious anymore and felt that they were being treated to the equivalent of low-cost B-movie directors and the Hollywood resources did not seem worth it by comparison.

John Woo was the only director to rise up the ranks working with other A-listers. Tsui Hark eventually returned to working on Hong Kong productions and Ringo Lam collaborated with Van Damme on a few more straight-to-video productions before retiring from directing.

Tsui Hark has always been a hit-and-miss director for me. He always wants to do too much and ends up overstuffing his films at the expense of the primary idea he started with. But here, perhaps because it was hi American debut, that problem is not here. Working with an American studio and an English language script forced Tsui Hark to reign himself in.

So the setup… Counter-terrorist agent Jack Quinn misses his target, Stavros, on his final mission. He is sent to the Colony, an organization for presumed-dead assassins. He breaks free and seeks aid from Yaz, a weapons dealer for his final battle with Stavros.

Just a few small thoughts to get out of the way. The film is shot like a cartoon with its pastel-like color palette. The art direction is noteworthy as well, it gives a futuristic sense to everything here without being too far into the future or going too over-the-top. It looks like a future that can exist one day.

The idea of the Colony, a secret organization that helps police the world behind-the-scenes via surveillance and advice, is a pretty fun quasi-Utopian concept (the members of the organization live in a sea view resort but are not allowed to leave the place ever) and it is where the film picks up in its second act. The sequences where Van Damme rebuilds himself in a training montage and his escape from the Colony were both interesting and fun visual set pieces. They keep the movie interesting without relying on acting or fight choreography and are specifically designed around things Van Damme can do. Where John Woo dressed Van Damme with gunplay and Ringo Lam with drama, Tsui Hark dressed him up with visual crazy concepts and just let him shine throwing his signature kicks. Tsui Hark recognized that acting was not Van Damme’s forte (at least not until 2008’s JCVD) and decided to let him be the straight man and created chaos around him for contrast. This brings us to the casting of Dennis Rodman…

Dennis Rodman is funny in an absolute hammy way as Yaz the arms dealer. He is so blatantly obnoxious having so much fun playing himself and making basketball puns I can’t help it but laugh along with it. I’m not saying Rodman should be in every movie but he’s likable here. There’s an appeal in movies where the audience witnesses two characters that would never meet under normal circumstances. Van Damme and Rodman make such an odd pairing that it’s just interesting to watch. Heck, seeing Dennis Rodman fist bump a computer-hacking monk is mind bogglingly entertaining.

From a fight choreography standpoint, having to showcase Van Damme’s roundhouse kicks sacrifices a lot of smaller beats within a fight. Van Damme’s roundhouse kicks are beautiful but cinematically speaking, they look slow because of the 360° windup. It’s a powerful kick but also very one-note and requires a certain amount of distance, which means there is not a lot room for upper body parrying. You’ll notice Van Damme never does too much with his hands in his films but rather holding back so he can throw a kick. The roundhouse kick is also a definitive finisher; nobody who receives a kick like that can continue that particular round.

Double Team showcases Van Damme’s kicking ability by cinematically creating a sense of speed and power. Peter Pau, the cinematographer for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Sammo Hung, the action choreographer, both solve that problem by injecting a crackling frenetic energy into the action scenes that makes the audience flinch and jump as if they were in the fight.

As an example, I’m going to describe an action sequence in the film:

Van Damme kicks a henchman, who is firing at him with a machine-gun-in-a-suitcase, through a hotel room door. The henchman falls into the hotel room and is kicked back into the opposite direction by another Chinese henchman. The henchman flies toward Van Damme like a sad ping pong ball. Van Damme roundhouse kicks him off to the side. He drags along the floor, barely alive, almost smashing his head to the wall. The camera then swish-pans to a white marble statue of a thinking man and lingers there for 2 seconds. Van Damme then fights the Chinese henchman (played by Hung Yan Yan, Club Foot from the Once Upon a Time in China series) in the living room, who then crazily takes off his shoes, revealing a switchblade held between his toes and proceeds to cut Van Damme with a series of kicks.

The short ping pong game between Hung Yan Yan and Van Damme speeds up the entire feeling of the fight because we’re only seeing Van Damme for half the time. The focus is brilliantly on the poor henchman who is being knocked back and forth. By the time we cut back to Van Damme, he’s already winding up to kick him to the side.

So how do they maintain the speed of the scene for the next part? Admittedly, Van Damme is passively dodging Hung’s kicks before retaliating but the idea of a henchman who is using a knife clenched between his toes to cut the hero is so insane that we’re just completely distracted. Yes, it’s a game of shifting the audience’s focus. Plus, Hung Yan Yan is a fantastic kicker.

Lastly, why that swish-pan to the statue? It’s such a tiny odd detail but it adds a lot to that moment. I always find myself laughing at that moment. Why? 1) It’s a moment of relief. It’s a short recess for the audience to rest their eyes. 2) We see that the henchman wishing he were dead. 3) Marble statues are beautiful. It’s an odd hilarious short tonal shift.

Here’s a clip of that action sequence here:

A lot of action gets better and better as the films goes on with shots like this. The end sequence with Mickey Rourke at the Coliseum made for a nice finale. They share a good fight. Even though it doesn’t seem well-planned on the villain’s part to place a whole field of marked mines and fistfight over it with a live tiger roaming around.

As for Mickey Rourke, he’s a decent villain but I don’t know why he had to buff up like that. It just makes him move more sluggishly. Perhaps that’s the filmmakers were busy thinking how to make Van Damme look good, they forgot about Mickey Rourke. It’s a shame because there’s nothing that exhibits his boxing training here. It’s still a great finale sequence nonetheless. The final explosion builds to a hilarious ending involving a hallway full of Coca Cola vending machines and the end credits end on a techno song featuring Dennis Rodman on vocals.

There is a lot of craft in this movie, but it’s buried under its blatant obnoxious surface because it’s so insane. The insanity is what’s mesmerizingly fun about it. And maybe that’s why audiences failed to connect with Double Team when it was released. I genuinely like this movie a lot.

With that all said, I will officially say it publicly. 3, 2, 1… I liked Double Team!

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Flying Swords of Dragon Gate by Tsui Hark

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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Double Team by Tsui Hark

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.