The first weekend of Fantastic Fest 2013 has been a whirlwind of excitement and buzz around the strangest, most intense films you won’t find at Sundance — which is a good thing. Now in its eight year, Austin genre-film fest uncovers the weirdest of the weird from every corner of the globe, but it's also become the launching pad for some major movies in the domestic market.
Enter Man of Tai Chi, a multilingual kung fu film that finds two film veterans taking a new cinematic path. The first is the film’s lead actor, Tiger Chen Hu, a martial artist who performed as a stunt man for films such as the sequels to The Matrix. The second is the film’s first-time director, Keanu Reeves, the Hollywood actor who has performed his fare share of kung fu on film.
Man of Tai Chi follows the story of a young martial artist, played by Tiger Chen, who becomes involved with an underground fighting competition led by a powerful Hong Kong businessman, played by Keanu Reeves. The film follows a moral journey through the philosophy of tai chi. Reeves and Tiger Chen took some time out from their Fantastic Fest schedule to elaborate on their new roles and speak to what tai chi can teach us about life.
Despite having experienced considerable professional pressure in the past, the two were ready to take new challenges in stride. “I would say that for the both of us, the work that we have done in the past has led us to be prepared for the moment to make Man of Tai Chi,” says Reeves. Citing his work on set as an actor and occasional experience behind the scenes as a producer or developing scripts, Reeves says that “a lot of the rooms were familiar to me: the acting, the camera, the set, pre-production and post. I have had kind of a life of film school, so my experience brought me to this place.”
Much of Chen’s work also set him up to be prepared for a much bigger part in filmmaking. “For me, when I was a stunt guy and even training in martial arts, I always wanted to be the actor,” says Chen. “I’ve been prepared for this for many years, and we’ve worked on Man of Tai Chi for many years. I think I’m ready. Thanks to this gentleman for making my wish come true — my dream come true.”
Directing a film for the first time can be stressful for anyone, but Reeves didn’t have time to let the pressure get to him. “It’s such a joyful thing,” says Reeves, “You know, it’s our passion. Like [Tiger Chen] said, growing up wanting to — for me growing up wanting to and doing — and then having this opportunity. You’re in moments that you’re just so happy to be there.”
“How was your first day?” Reeves asked Chen. "I was under big, big pressure," the Man of Thai Chi star responded. "[There is] lots of pressure on me as an actor for the very first time. Physically, the pain is every day, since there are a lot of fights, and mentally because he pushed me to the edge a lot of times. It feels like I’ll have a heart attack a lot of times. It’s such a pain, but it’s such a pain that it brings you such happiness."
The production of the film was a new journey for both men, but within the completed film is another journey that lays out the philosophy of tai chi and how it can inform the way people can live their lives.
“It’s tai chi, but if you don’t know it as tai chi. It’s what we experience in our life, in a sense of — I want to just say 'light and dark' — but as we evolve and change, as we build our character, as we build who we are,” says Reeves. “I think we go through things that are very tai chi; you have forces that act upon you, and how do you respond? Sometimes we come after them hard-style — ‘Fuck you!’
“And then as life goes on, you see where that gets you, when people come at you in certain ways and in our life experience," he says. "So the film can be enjoyed from the tai chi perspective, but it's also approachable and communicated personally.”
If he had to choose one lesson that can come from the portrayal of the hero’s journey in Man of Tai Chi, Reeves says, it would be “the idea of thoughtfulness. The meditation or thoughtfulness of what are we doing and why are we doing it. That could be the choices that we make or the behaviors. Hopefully, this thoughtfulness can help with compassion for ourselves and for others: personally, as a culture, as a group and as a species.”
Man of Tai Chi will be available September 27 on VOD and enters U.S. theaters nationwide on November 1.