“Man of Tai Chi” is a martial arts movie and the directorial debut of Keanu Reeves. Reeves also stars in the movie, though not as the main protagonist.
The movie focuses on Chen Lin-Hu, the “Man of Tai Chi”. Chen is a good man, wholeheartedly immersed in the honour and humble ways of Tai Chi. When Chen is hired to be part of Donaka Mark’s (Keanu Reeves) security detail, things begin to change for him. The “interview” process is a ommand to “fight”, and suddenly Chen is forced to defend himself.
Donaka runs an illegal underground fighting ring, and he becomes obsessed with the idea of entering Chen into the competition. The more Chen goes on about how Tai Chi is pure and should not be used for competition, the more Donaka wants to corrupt him. Donaka’s quest becomes more about corrupting Chen’s soul and less about the competition itself.
Chen, for the most part, goes along with Donaka’s games and succumbs to the corruption, little by little. Whether he will continue his descent to the inevitable end, or whether he will pull himself back to a life of honour, is the question that sets up much of the dramatic tension in the plot.
Keanu Reeves’s appears in an exciting fight scene with Chen near the very end, and the rest of his scenes are better than one might first expect.
The choreography of the fight scenes, by Yuen Woo-ping, is refreshingly old-school. Instead of quick cuts and rapid editing, there are longer more established shots. This not only makes the action easier to follow, but it gives the viewer a sense that the actors are actually going through the entire choreography instead of doing it piece-by-piece in multiple takes. Overall, it seems less fake and more satisfying, and is a nice change from the recent trend of more and more over-the-top editing and choreography. It simply gives the film a different sense of aesthetic and a more unique tone as compared to most recent Hong Kong movies.
Emotionally, the movie is primarily about watching a man descend into darkness. Chen has strong convictions about what Tai Chi stands for and Donaka enjoys slowly eroding those beliefs away. The viewer is treated to the imagery of Chen slowly selling himself out, bit by bit, and turning his back on everything he was taught by his master, as the sadistic Donaka revels in the spectacle of Chen’s downfall. This speaks to the fear of many martial instructors, of a prized student going down the wrong path. Will they or will they not redeem themselves? This is the key moral question posed by this movie. The journey to discover the answer is both worthwhile and quite entertaining.