Everyone once in a while one feels the desire to watch a straightforward, fun martial arts film. Whether it is Karate Kid, Once Upon a Time in China or Tai Chi Master, a martial arts film is refreshingly acrobatic and purely physical in every sense. Man of Tai chi was directed by one of my favorite actors, Keanu Reeves (Point Break), in his directorial debut. The set-up is simple: we follow the journey of a tai chi student down a dark path of greed and power. Nevertheless, the film manages to be very enjoyable, and never feels forced or too over the top.
Keanu Reeves stars in the film as the villain, Donaka Mark, which is rather unusual for him but brings enough menace to the screen to elicit a gleeful reaction. He uses a “villain voice” throughout the film, successfully employing a menacing tone. The protagonist is Tiger Chen who plays a character of the same name. Chen worked on the stunts for some of the biggest martial arts films such as the last two Matrix films and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He is not exactly a powerful screen presence but his physical abilities are exceedingly fun to watch. Karen Mok (Fallen Angels) also has a supporting role on the film as a police investigator trying to pin down Donaka Mark. A little cameo appearance from the lead actor of The Raid, Iko Uwais, is also provided for martial arts film fans.
The direction by Reeves is well done despite a few scenes with annoyingly jarring editing and lighting. The cinematography is surprisingly stylish, with a clear deep focus dominating most scenes. The landscapes and mise-en-scene offer a clean and modern view of Chinese city vistas. The fight scenes themselves are well executed with minimal post-production sound editing that lends more credibility to the raw nature of the fights. The film is not afraid of showing blood but doesn’t go overboard doing so.
The film was partly financed by Chinese production companies and thus the film itself showcases a balance of Western/East-Asian filmmaking styles. This project took five years for Keanu to complete and the care and devotion shows. It is by no means ground breaking, or an achievement to the same degree that Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster was, but it is a solid entry in the martial arts genre and a confident step by Reeves into the directorial realm.