Keanu Reeves talks MAN OF TAI CHI; breaking the fourth wall and preparing to be a villain

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While Keanu Reeves had already been an action star (Speed anyone?) before The Matrix, it was that leather-bound blockbuster that turned him into a bona fide practitioner of skop, skiet en donner. Somebody who assisted with all his skopping, skieting and donnering was martial artist and stuntman Tiger Chen, and the pair have now teamed up for kick-ass kung fu flick Man of Tai Chi.

The film sees Reeves both in front of and debuting behind the camera, and he spilled the beans on the it’s self awareness, playing the villain, and being offered lots of money by rich businessmen.

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Despite making a career out of playing kind of goofy heroes, Reeves cast himself as the bad guy, Donaka, a wealthy businessman who offers Chen’s charater, er…Chen, a huge amount of money to exploit his fighting skills.  Speaking to Movies.com (no relation), Reeves explained how he actually drew a little from his own personal experience for this plot point.

“I once was trying to get money for a film, and however it happened, this guy in Chile said, “Come visit me in Chile and meet my family, spend the weekend and I’ll give you all of this money.” So it was like a plane, and then a private plane, and meeting his family. He was a very exotic character doing dealings with metals and ores. It was this whole thing. Get on a private jet, then go on a helicopter, and meet his family. He’d come in and out of doors and just disappear and I’d be like, “What just happened?” And then we left and he never gave us any money. It was odd.

“[I used maybe his entrances as inspiration, yeah]. You’d wait for him. It would be a room with multiple doors and then he’d come in from the one door you didn’t expect, and there’d be like three people behind him doing things. And then he’d disappear, and some exotic champagne would show up. Then they’d be like, “Now, please go to your room and change for dinner” and it would be just his wife and children, so I’d eat with them. Then they’d be like, “Here’s this helicopter” and we’d take it to go skiing, and then he’d disappear again.

And what that meant to me is that you were on his agenda. And that, for me to use with Donaka, says a lot about control. Starting with the “Stand on the white line, turn left, turn right”– Tiger thinks he has free will, and he does, but these are all decisions that are being manipulated because his free will is all leading to the desires that the bad guy knows. His free will is really, “Here, go ahead and choose, but I already know what you’re going to pick.”

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And if that level of philosophising in a martial arts movie – especially one starring Reeves – surprises you, then get ready for a whole lot more. The film apparently not only boasts several meta elements (Keanu Reeves the director is a lot like Donaka the villain telling characters what to do) but also quite a bit discussion with the audience about various topics, as a inherently good man is manipulated into a situation that forces him to abandon his morals.

And sometimes, those discussion actually turn very literal as characters break the fourth wall and speak directly to the viewer.

“It’s one of those things we would run into in the script a lot, and one of the things we wanted to play with was the idea that it was pretty Tai Chi how some of this happens. And what that means is how energies transform, how one things becomes another. It is meta. I mean, Tiger’s character’s name is close to his name, but also me being the director and then also the actor who is playing the villain who is breaking the fourth wall [Laughs]… you can go in there and do that with the film. It wasn’t intentional in the beginning, but as we were developing the story, it developed on its own.”

This whole way of thinking is taken to it’s extreme in a scene where Tiger actually slaps the camera out of his way.

“Ah, you saw that! That was really intentional. I felt like with Man of Tai Chi I didn’t have any rules and the film could accept a lot of different cinema, and a lot of different perspectives. So hitting the camera, and having the camera operator go “What are you doing?” and Tiger going– ‘What? You want me to hit the camera?’

I felt, emotionally, that character could do that, you know? It gives you a nice, “Wait, what?” but I felt that the film breaking the fourth wall– there’s a sequence when Tiger is having a flashback and realizing that he’s been surveilled and his life has been manipulated, and we go full screen. It’s simple things, but there’s a complicity to the immersion of the audience with the characters, and the characters with the film. We were hoping to play with that and put it toward the story to add some things to think about.”

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Reeves also revealed how the idea for this film came about – and no, it wasn’t just “I want to kick people in the face” – and how it went through many different iterations before it arrived at the movie we now have.

“It was a script that came to me originally from Tiger and his producing partner Daxing Zhang, and it went through many, many, many incarnations to where we landed…”

“I mean, like, as an example, in the beginning Tiger had a dojo in mainland China in Beijing and I was a student from the States and he had troubles with the dojo, and that didn’t last long. Then we came up with the underground fighting, and we needed a bad guy, but then we came into a mess of censorship stuff. Originally it all took place in Beijing, but in mainland China we couldn’t have a corrupt police officer, and we couldn’t have underground fighting, so that went to Hong Kong. And so one of these things that happened really opened up the movie in a very Tai Chi way. They came at us with hard style, and we used soft style, and it made the movie bigger.”

‘…For me it was inspired by Tiger and his traditions. He has a master! He studies with him, but he’s also a stuntman and a modern guy who made his way to Beijing and had a dream and a passion and he went for it, and the film is hoping to talk about traditional vs. modern, East vs. West, and Tiger is really the wellspring for everything.”

Hhhheehhheeehhh… He said “hard style”…

Man Tai Chi is currently out on VOD and will be having it’s US debut on November 1, 2013, however there’s still no local release dates on the cards, which means that you may just have to keep watching this latest trailer over and over again to get your Keanu Kung Fu fix.

Last Updated: October 2, 2013

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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