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Thursday, December 19, 2013

DVD Review: Man Of Tai Chi

Man Of Tai Chi is a martial arts action film starring Tiger Hu Chen and Keanu Reeves, and directed by Keanu Reeves (his directorial debut). It tells the tale of Tiger Chen, who studies Tai Chi and has developed his own fighting style based on the teachings of a Tai Chi master. His skills bring him to the attention of Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves), a rich and well-connected man who runs an underground fight club.

The film opens with a fight scene in a strange tiled room within what looks like a warehouse. It’s a serious fight, and when one man gets the definitive edge on his opponent, a voice above commands, “Finish him.” The man hesitates, and a masked man enters and breaks the other man’s neck. It is soon revealed that the masked man is Donaka himself, and he then kills the other fighter, the one who hesitated. He then demands of his cronies, “Find me another contestant.”

Meanwhile a female detective is leading a case looking into this underground fight club. But she is told by her superior that the case is closed, after she led a team to the wrong location. Of course, she’ll continue to work on this case on her own time.

It is then we are introduced to Tiger Chen, who goes to a Tai Chi training session at a temple, learning from his Master. Their moves are very much like a dance, and it is beautiful to watch. Tiger stands in one spot while the Master continually thrusts a spear at him. He evades it adeptly at first, but then suddenly breaks the spear with his hand. The Master tells him: “You used power to break the spear, instead of guiding your Chi to evade it. Tai Chi is about balance: the harmony of form and spirit.” Tiger replies, “But power could also solve the problem.” The Master tells him, “The choice you made today will not only affect your martial ability, it will also determine the essence of who you will become.” That hints that this story is about Tiger’s fall (sort of like Anakin Skywalker).

Tiger Chen competes in the Wulin Wang Championship, which is televised. Tiger is wearing a white shirt; his opponent, Chou Ping, is all in black. When they’re introduced, Chou Ping has several men around him. Tiger Chen is alone on his side, calmly waiting. That’s a nice way to set them apart, and to help establish Tiger Chen’s character and disposition. You sympathize and want to identify with Tiger Chen. Tiger then wins the fight in the first round, drawing the attention of Donaka, who sends him an intriguing offer of employment.

Tiger tells Donaka that he can’t fight Tai Chi for money as it’s dishonorable. But wait – does that mean he’s not getting paid for those professional, televised fights? That doesn’t seem quite believable. Anyway, his Master is threatened with eviction, as the developers want to tear down the temple. So Tiger must fight to help save the temple.

We see in quick succession several of his illegal fights. They all take place in the cold grey room where he first had his interview, rather than in an arena with an audience like the opening fight. What’s interesting is how this affects his style during professional bouts, leading to him becoming more aggressive, less centered. It also affects his relationship with his Master, who notices a change in right away. He tells Tiger that he has power, but not control, and Tiger actually challenges him on that point. Later Tiger feels a need to prove himself to his Master. What’s wonderful is the contrast of that scene with the first scene between them. While the first was beautiful and graceful, like a dance, this one is fast, ugly, seemingly chaotic and angry.

During one of the private fights, Tiger throws a man through the mirror, revealing several people in another room, with lots of equipment. The fights are being broadcast to Donaka’s clients around the world. This upsets Tiger, which is odd, because after all what did he think he was getting paid for?

Donaka is a man of few words, which is fine, as Keanu Reeves is admittedly not the most accomplished actor. But there is some terrible dialogue in the film. For example, at one point Tiger says, “Give me a fight,” and Donaka responds, “A fight you will get.” There is also one really awful shot of Keanu Reeves growling directly into the camera – it’s brief, but laughable. It’s supposed to show his joy at turning Tiger into a more aggressive, violent fighter. Another problematic scene is a horrific, incredible car crash, from which the driver walks away without even a limp (and it’s not tough fighter character). It’s just not believable.

There is a somewhat magical or spiritual element introduced late in the film, when the Master is able to push Tiger back without really touching him, leaving a strange mark on his belly the next day (which is then suddenly gone when he fights shirtless). The final fight scene, while seeming inevitable, actually feels a bit silly.

But most of the fight scenes are excellent, and it is interesting to see how Tiger Chen’s character changes through these fights, and that’s really what this film is about.

Bonus Material

The DVD includes “The Making Of Man Of Tai Chi,” an eight-minute behind-the-scenes look at the film. It features an interview with Keanu Reeves, who talks about how he worked with Tiger Hu Chen on The Matrix and became friends. Chen told him stories about learning Tai Chi and about his master, and that led to them wanting to do a film together. There are also interviews with Tiger Hu Chen and Elliott Davis (the cinematographer).

There is also a commentary track by Keanu Reeves and Tiger Chen. Oddly, especially considering there are two people and this is Keanu Reeves’ first time directing, there are long gaps in the track where this is no commentary. And a lot of what is said is fairly obvious, offering few insights into the film or the process by which it was made. Instead, as Keanu’s character leans forward to watch Tiger’s televised match, Keanu comments, “The dark master leans forward.” We do, however, get some interesting information about the statue that Tiger is given. And it’s interesting that they took five days to shoot that job interview fight. Also interesting is that they created a type of Tai Chi for the film, inventing the name rather than using an existing form.

Man Of Tai Chi was released on DVD and Blu-ray on December 10, 2013 through Anchor Bay.

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