For his directorial debut, actor Keanu Reeves has picked a refreshingly eccentric project: a straight-ahead martial-arts/kung fu genre film called Man of Tai Chi, the story of a peaceful and pacifistic spirit – embodied by a gifted but naive tai chi master – lured to the dark side of underworld fight clubs by the promise of fame and fortune.
There are questions of philosophy, religion and morality addressed in the film, but there is also a whole lot of ass-kicking going on.
The movie – which opens Nov. 1 – is the result of years of friendship between the director/co-star and his lead, an affinity that began when Tiger Hu Chen worked as part of martial-arts choreography master Yuen Woo-ping's stunt team on the Reeves-starring Matrix trilogy.
Sitting next to each other on a hotel room sofa during the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Reeves and Chen described how the project took root.
"The premise of the film," Reeves explains, "and its ambition in terms of its story, is inspired by what I know of and how I know Tiger. … We wanted to work together and develop a story, and we came up with this idea because Tiger has a background in tai chi. This idea of the traditional and the modern, how do they live in the world? And what is against that living in the world?"
The concept for the story grew out of Chen's own experiences: the reconciling of martial arts as a fighting practice versus a meditative one, and the eternal struggle of balancing inner harmony with external distractions. This is why Chen's character, Chen Lin-Hu, even shares a name.
"Because we'd be doing the stories based and modelled on myself," Chen explains, "he was always asking me, 'What do you feel? What do you choose in this situation?' And I was like, 'Okay, I'll tell you the true thing.' So it kind of relates to my real life, and that's why we didn't change the name."
Casting himself as the evil corporate tempter Donaka Mark, who lures Chen into the ring for blood and money, Reeves plays a variation of a figure as old as martial-arts movies themselves: the corrupter of the innocent spirit.
"Tiger speaks about how in order to make these films you have to kind of have a passion for the past," Reeves explains. "You want to create this lineage, and in martial-arts movies there's always some kind of internal aspect to it. So we were trying to use that. Especially with tai chi you get to have the light and the dark, and for me light and dark doesn't necessarily always have to mean bad or good. It's a kind of negotiation, they have to co-exist together in a way, but for the movie it definitely lent itself to this light and dark.
"I'm the dark master, he's the light master, and these are very simple things, but we know that from simple constructs we have complexity."