I am certain that most movie-goers knew that George Lucas, creator of “Star Wars” got his inspiration of the JEDI Knights and the Sith Lords, representations of the light and darkness of one discipline from the Zen teachings and martial arts discipline, right? As with life, many things have a side bathed in light while a shadow of darkness almost seems to loom. It is always a choice as to how goes about a path, while one path may lead to enlightenment, the other may lead to ruin.
The Difference Between a Fighter and a Warrior is that one fights for a Reason while the other fights for a Purpose. (that does sound cool)
First-time director Keanu Reeves (yes, the one who played Neo in “The Matrix”) along with his stuntman friend, Tiger Chen attempts to bring a story about darkness and light, and how one who only seeks light can sometimes be tempted to go about a path of darkness even for the correct reasons. “Man of Tai Chi” had finally been released in Asia and has been picked for the 2013 Toronto film festival (maybe set for a U.S. release soon), Cannes and has received acclaim from action maestro John Woo.
Honestly, the plot set up of “Man of Tai Chi” is standard and is pretty contrived at first look, but it did have the necessary tools to bring about the spirit of Tai Chi. It concerns a young practitioner of Tai Chi named Linhu “Tiger” Chen (Tiger Chen) who seeks enlightenment in competition as well as displaying the spirit of his art. Chen likes the simple life, but when he attracts the attention of the head of an underground fight club, Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves), Chen is asked to fight with loads of money as the reward. Chen had the correct instinct to refuse, but when his master’s (Yu Hai) 600 year-old temple becomes threatened by re-development, Chen chooses to compete to get the resources to protect his beloved temple. When Chen becomes the fight club’s number one draw, he must learn once again how to choose the right path.
“Man of Tai Chi” has your usual stereotypical characters, and honestly I am a little too weary of the fighter who fights for a reason, sucked into a corrupt world and then he finds his true path. There are many other movies that expressed the Yin and the Yang, the darkness and the light; most notably is the Japanese film “Black Belt” but its approach was much more subtle and offered more layered characters than Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut. You have the crooked greedy martial artist represented by Reeves, the master who wishes his student to reach inner peace, the student who wants the honorable path and yet drawn into the corrupt path, and the cop who seeks out the bad guy as brought forth by the Jing Shi (Karen Mok). The characters here are the usual clichés, and the plot development offers little surprises and inspiration and was merely present to showcase the fight choreography.
But, there is something good to be said for its themes. Much of the film revolved around the workings of the Chen character, and the film does a good job in defining the spirit of the Tai Chi Art. I know most of us are familiar with it being practiced as a form of exercise, but really Tai Chi is all about the re-direction of force, the control of one’s chi, and the rising and advancing of the spirit. Tai Chi is an art, that can be used for self-defense, and the film does marvelous work in defining its philosophies and inner core. Chen is a man who is learning, while his skills are great, his mind is not as strong as his body. It was a study of a martial artist, and just what it means when one says “practice martial arts so you will know when or when not to fight”. The screenplay does get all the necessary messages across; Light is always threatened by the shadow of darkness, and yet only light can dispel darkness. It may be a little cliché, but the themes did manage to work itself quite well to enhance the film’s otherwise pedestrian plot set up.
This is not a film that would showcase an actor’s ability to act, but it is indeed a film made to showcase and highlight the beauty in movement of Tai Chi. Tai Chi is matched with different styles such as MMA, other forms of Kung Fu, wrestling and even street fighting. The fight choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping was nearly excellent, it also seemed to get better the more the viewer sees Chen fight, and it hardly utilizes the use of wire work (or what we call wire-fu). Being a stunt man, Tiger Chen is on familiar ground with the martial arts choreography. The hits and the moves did feel authentic that I had very little to complain about. I really enjoyed the fight between the master and the student and exactly how it ended. The battle between Chen and two other fighters spoke well for his own descent into darkness. The camera work was pretty decent for a first-time director such as Reeves, as the viewer is privy to most of the action. I was a little disappointed with the final climactic fight; Keanu Reeves went one-on-one with Chen, and yet I could not buy into Reeves’ ‘wire-fu’ giving Chen’s more genuine looking moves a run for its money. It did have one nice ingredient, however, that I was able to forgive its weaknesses despite how stiff and clumsy Reeves looked in the moves.
Tiger Chen does have the presence of a highly skilled fighter and he made his role very believable. He is a man who seeks peace and yet, he experiences turmoil in his spirit. I had no issues buying into his character despite the weaknesses of its plot. Keanu Reeves seeks to channel his inner “Neo” and tries to be a mean baddie, but really he wasn’t convincing enough, and there were times that I thought he wanted to be some kind of "sith lord'. He should’ve skipped doing that final fight scene, since as a first-time director, he was still experiencing some ‘growing pains’. Hong Kong cinema veterans Karen Mok and Simon Yam played characters that were stereotypes, but I did not mind Mok’s presence at all. Yu Hai played a very likable Master Yang, and he was the reason why the Chen character became a little more sympathetic than what could’ve been if he was not around. Iko Iwais (The Raid: Redemption) has a cameo appearance, but it was too bad that he did not get to show his stuff.
“Man of Tai Chi” is a good-intentioned film that seeks to define the art and philosophies of Tai Chi. No, it wasn’t anything to write home about, about the expression of its themes and the action sequences provided good enough entertainment. Yes, the film does have a lot of cliché, and really it wasn’t anything original, but it was good for a first-time director with a lot of growing pains in leading a motion picture (it was also multi-lingual which made it feel more authentic). No, it is not a must-see but I would mildly recommendit for martial arts fans and a RENTAL for everybody else. [3 ½ Out of 5 Stars]
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