Star, student, fighter
Updated: 2013-07-10 07:18
By Liu Wei (China Daily)
Keanu Reeves' involvement with Chinese martial arts goes beyond the sci-fi trilogy that added punch to his career and is the force behind his directorial debut. Liu Wei reports in Beijing.
In the blockbuster The Matrix, Keanu Reeves declared: "I know kung fu". He made the statement after the martial art was virtually uploaded into his mind in the sci-fi hit. But his directorial debut Man of Tai Chi suggests he actually has had ancient Chinese fighting styles on the brain for the six years since work started on the film. The movie was released in China on July 5. It will also be screened at the Toronto Film Festival in September.
The film is a personal undertaking for the 48-year-old, who reunites with Matrix choreographer Yuen Woo-ping and Chen Hu, his kung fu trainer during the Matrix trilogy's creation. The film's regular and IMAX versions are packed with Chinese tai chi and mixed martial arts.
Reeves plays the boss of an underground fighting club, who lures a young tai chi practitioner, played by Chen Hu, to fight and kill for money.
Reeves' action scenes are dense. He battles Chen in hand-to-hand combat in the final "super fight", as he calls it. He did most of the 10-minute sequence himself but called in stuntmen for some of the dangerous moves because he has a neck plate.
Chen is the film's biggest star and fights for much of the 100 minutes.
The 30-year-old from Sichuan province started training at age 8 and worked in many Hollywood movies as a choreographer, stuntman and trainer. He and Reeves became friends while training eight hours a day when making The Matrix.
Chen calls Reeves "the most hard-working with the most interest in Chinese culture among all star pupils". He told Reeves to watch Bruce Lee and Jet Li films every night and combine what he saw with what he was taught. The pandas, landscapes and food of Sichuan were frequent conversational topics. Reeves wrote the preface for Chen's 2005 autobiography.
"Perhaps we bonded because I tortured him more than others," Chen jokes in an earlier interview with China Daily.
"It's difficult to describe how you establish friendships. You just feel connections when you talk about family and share jokes and perspectives."
Chen impressed Reeves with a story about his master. Chen says his teacher would use a handful of seeds to lure birds. He would collect the birds' chi when they ate from his hand and couldn't fly away.
The word chi appears frequently in the film.
Reeves regards it as a life force.
The master in his film says: "If you don't learn to control your chi, it could be destructive. Power and control are both important."
The plotline hinges on tai chi's balance.
The protagonist struggles to equalize his dark and bright sides, his respect for tai chi and his aspirations for money and fame.
"When he wins fights, he is losing something," Reeves says about the role.
As for Reeves' actual dark side: "I hug my dark side. I give it affection. I try to keep it quiet."
Riding motorcycles and performing rock music are his ways of finding inner peace, he says.
Kung fu could become another because it connects people to their bodies and involves frequent meditation.
Power and control is something the first-timer needs when directing a team of Chinese, Americans, Japanese and Australians.
"I am not that kind of yelling director," he says.
"Having acted for years, I know how to take care of actors. I have my opinion, but you can have something different, and I will listen to you and ask what other crew members think about."
Yuen and Chen say Reeves had fits on the set but was cursing himself. Reeves doesn't deny that. "That's generally what I am doing in action scenes," he says.
"If I do the wire and what happens is not right, I will go away and yell, because my chi was wasted. I have to collect it again and start over."
Scriptwriting turned out to be the most time-consuming part of the production.
The film was originally written in English. Reeves found someone to translate it into Chinese and invited three Chinese writers to vet it to ensure it appeals to both cultures.
The film's Chinese production company China Film Group supported on venues, funding and censorship suggestions, such as how bloody the fight scenes should be.
Reeves says he's confident Chinese and US viewers will enjoy it.
"The genre is still loved by international audiences," he says.
"And the issues are universal, such as a humble boy becomes a kung fu hero, and how he falls into a dark world and goes out of it. That is not only Eastern. We Westerners understand it well, too. It is a universal story of humankind."
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(China Daily USA 07/10/2013 page9)