New on Blu-Ray this week is a film I caught back at Fantastic Fest this past September. The Man of Tai Chi follows Tiger Chen (Tiger Chen) as a apprentice, studying Tai Chi under his master Ling Kong, a Chinese method of martial arts that focuses developing ones defense abilities as well as health. Tiger is an accomplished student but has trouble controlling his Chi, his master fearing his aggression taking him down a darker path. Tiger struggles with this control while having an agenda to show that the usually ‘passive’ Tai Chi is a credible technique and participates in competitive fighting. His unusual style catches the eye of Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves), a business man who also runs a underground fighting competition. Donaka draws Tiger into his competition playing to his pride and arrogance. The pay for fighting is an added incentive, the money required by Tiger to save his Master’s Temple, condemmed for demolition by the city. Another level of manipulation on the part of Donaka to push his new fighter further down a darker path to turn him into the ultimate fighter. Coupled with this is a police investigation, looking into the fighting scene and murders connected with it. Soon Tiger is torn between his anger and pride and his duty and honor.
Man of Tai Chi is a accomplished directorial debut from Reeves. The fight sequences are intense and impressive, wire work yes, but there is a lack of any flashy additions. The story is not complex, but delivers well and is quickly paced. Tiger Chen does an admirable job even though he doesn’t have much dialogue, but his reactions and conflict come across well. There are issues with tone as it walks a fine line as the film from sincere to cheesy at times. This is largely due to Reeves and his portrayal of Donaka, where at times he verges on ‘Nicholas Cage-esque’ in his delivery. Reeve’s role as Donaka was slightly jarring, but I quickly embraced the wacky nefarious approach and it also livened up what could have been a more plodding production. In retrospect, the film felt like it could have been a JCVD vehicle from the ’90s, had it been I am sure it would have achieved cult classic status by now. I am unsure what tone Reeves was aiming for exactly as it could be an aspect that confuses some viewers.
So why the Star Wars connection?
Well, focus on a young man that is strong in the ways of his art but frustrated at the restrictions placed on him by his master. He also has a darker side he struggles to control and a streak of arrogance. Check.
A wise old master tries his best to keep his pupil on the right path and impart the wisdom of his teaching. Patience and honor being paramount above anger and pride. Also, the old master is able to fight without actually physically contacting his opponent and has wispy grey hair. Check.
Finally, we have an influential man who seeks to corrupt people for his own perverse entertainment and personal gain. Check.
Man of Tai Chi is not a complex story. It deals with straightforward issues such as ambition, pride, and necessity. The original Star Wars trilogy was a simple piece of film making, good vs. evil, rescuing a princess, etc. That simplicity and the bold delivery is what made for a cinematic classic. The prequel trilogy however was a far more convoluted and layered mess, the opening scrawl alone of The Phantom Menace mentions “taxation of trade routes” – hardly gripping or inspiring stuff. The path of Tiger Chen in this film somewhat mirrors that of Anakin Skywalker in the prequels and perhaps into the original trilogy (with his ultimate redemption), albeit in a more stripped down and focused way. His skill and power is better highlighted as is his frustration at the restrictions placed upon him and ultimately the exploitation of his ambition and eventual path towards the dark side is far more convincingly realized.
The corruption we see in Man of Tai Chi is a far more personal corruption and one that would have been more fitting to highlight the tragedy behind the fall of Anakin and the rise of Vader. Power aspirations, political on the part of Palpatine/The Emperor and financial on the part of Donaka are important to the story, their motivations being key to their acts, but the personal angle is more important. In Man of Tai Chi the conflict within Tiger is appropriately the focus. He goes on a spiritual journey that allows him to see that controlling his Chi (“the Force”) does not restrict him or make him weaker. Tiger realizes his Chi can become more powerful then ever, and that hate and aggression are not needed. It is within people, especially those with a talent, to develop arrogance, nurturing this development is key to control and corruption. Man of Tai Chi draws from that internal struggle to give us a better, albeit simplistic, representation of the corruption and journey down a dark path a man may choose to undertake, more so than the prequel trilogy did.
As a martial arts movie, Man of Tai Chi is an entertaining distraction. The fight scenes are engaging enough, and the cheese quota is sufficiently high to make it a fun viewing. Reeves puts in a great turn as a scenery chewing villain, whether he intended to or not, and his directorial debut is solidly accomplished. But in my mind, with a script adaptation, and dubbing over of Keanu Reeve’s voice by Ian McDiarmid and the addition of lightsabers, it could have been the Star Wars prequel we all deserved!