Keanu Reeves says that he was motivated to direct his first film “Man of Tai-Chi” because the story was close to his heart and vision.
“The origins of the story date back nearly fifteen years, to when martial artist Tiger Chen Hu met Keanu Reeves while working as part of the stunt team for The Matrix. Their friendship developed over the course of the trilogy of films, with Tiger eventually assuming more prominent stunt roles, impressing Reeves with his work ethic and imagination. “I had to do Kung Fu training with Tiger, and he would tell me stories about his Tai Chi master and his unusual training methods,” Reeves recalls today.
“That lead to a lot of deeper conversations about the Tao of life, Chi, martial arts, everything.” It was from these initial conversations that the two eventually decided to collaborate on a screen play that would not just feature Tai Chi as a device or excuse for high-octane fight and action sequences, but actually reflect the martial art’s philosophical values within the story.
We decided to work together. And over the years we developed a story that eventually came so close to my heart and my vision that I wanna to direct it. It became a story that I want to tell.”
Tiger Chen Hu believes that the character Tiger’s struggle is something that most audience will be able to relate to, even if they have no experience with martial arts or the underlying philosophy of taiji. “It’s easy to get trapped by the idea of money and power,” says Chen Hu. “Young people like money, smoking, drinking, but all that stuff is excess in the world. But you can’t just say, oh, I’m forbidden to know so I will just stay in my temple of purity. If you want to be completely Taoist, you have to go taste that. You have to go through the journey, to see it through, otherwise you aren’t really part of the full life.”
In addition to borrowing his own nickname for the character and collaborating with Reeves and screenwriter Michael G. Cooney on the script, Chen Hu also was happy to lend his own perspective and experience to help flesh out the story. “Tiger is about eighty percent me, my experiences, my personality, I think,” he says today. “Keanu said we don’t have to make another person, we’ll just put you into the story. So it was easy for him to ask me questions like ‘what would you feel like in this situation,’ and I could answer.” These conversations were often held across oceans and continents via video chat, leading to some unusual hours for Tiger to contemplate the fate of his character: “It would be the middle of the night when I would start these calls, and Keanu and Michael would be talking about the story. They’d ask me through the computer, ‘how would you feel’ and I’d answer, and they’d go back to talking and I’d fall asleep on the call. Then, a half hour later, they’d shout ‘Tiger!’ and ask me another question.”
Like his film’s namesake, Chen Hu trained in Tai Chi as a youth before moving on to other forms of martial arts in order to develop himself as a stunt artist and film professional. “Two years before we started filming, I went to another Tai Chi master to specifically train for the role of Tiger,” he recalls. “Tai Chi is a very unique martial art with a different philosophy: you are always trying to use the opponent’s power; you have to wait for the opponent to punch, kick, whatever, to throw power at you, so you can give the power back – you never attack first.”
Because of the complexity of Tai Chi as a martial art, Chen Hu, Reeves, and master fight coordinator Yuen Wo Ping (another Matrix veteran and a legendary fight choreographer and film director) had to ask themselves unusual questions when creating the fight sequences for MAN OF TAI CHI.
“I think it’s the first time you have MMA [Mixed Martial Arts] style versus Tai Chi,” says Chen-Hu.
“And, of course, we have to make all of the fights different from one another, so it’s not just the same moves over and over. Finally, you also have to tell the story, to live the journey through Tiger.” This would lead Reeves to ask Hu-Chen questions that are unfamiliar to most fighters used to basic stunt fighting: “Keanu would ask me ‘why do you have to kick?’
That’s a hard question to answer….why do you have to throw the punch or the kick now, at this moment.”
“The fighting scenes had to express that journey,” adds Reeves. “Where Tiger is emotionally, and that got into the specifics of where you are in your head, what style of martial arts are you fighting, what are you feeling during the fight, and how do you change as a result of this fight? Every scene had to have change and development of the character going into the fight sequences.”
Ultimately, Reeves was very impressed with Chen Hu’s ability to render Tiger not only in terms of martial artistry, but also in terms of emotional vulnerability.
“Tiger is a very talented actor,” Reeves avers, noting that even as a stuntman on The Matrix films, he was able to immediately understand the need for playing a character and not just executing the physical moves.
“I saw him do some work with Laurence Fishburne, and I could tell that he knew what it took to shoot a scene, to be on a movie set. So acting wasn’t unfamiliar to him; and in terms of the character work, he was so open and committed, and he completely understood the role.” Reeves cites one fight sequence where Hu-Chen’s performance during the shooting forced Reeves to reconsider the way the scene would be shot: “The way he looked at his opponent, I had to change the way we filmed the fight…that came from Tiger’s understanding of the character and the situation, and being alive as an actor. I look forward to see what he’s going to do with his acting in the future.”
For Reeves, it wasn’t simply a matter of guiding Chen Hu, a stunt man largely unused to the demands of a leading man who must carry the emotional weight of the film. He also had to supervise an international crew, most of whom who spoke an unfamiliar language, as well as bring weight and meaning to the role of Donaka Mark, the film’s shadowy antagonist. “One of my feelings about acting and directing at the same time is that as a director, you are really looking outward. You have something internal, an idea, a feeling, and you look outward and you collaborate. As an actor, you have a perspective of the outside but you’re looking at your place in it from this internal perspective. So it’s almost like having two sets of eyes. It was a new world for me, but it was a really great world to explore.”
“Man Of Tai Chi” is released and distributed by United International Pictures through Solar Entertainment Corp